Even in the darkest moments of the human condition, the desire for freedom and self-determination has never been extinguished. Even in societies which generation after generation kept others in bondage, time has preserved for us the aspirations of slaves seeking liberty and greater control over their fate. Roman society was particularly generous, granting the children of freedmen the full rights of citizenship, an especially coveted status that would enable the numerous descendants of freedmen to enter public life and eventually rise to positions of influence among the highest authorities in the Empire.
Individuals who today state that many slaves were “better off” in their servitude and even that they preferred bondage are sadly deluded, ignoring the evidence of history — and of their own eyes. Human trafficking in the present is simply the latest way of referring to the ongoing slave trade, one which may at times mirror low-wage employment. But any form of compulsive, imposed dependence is itself a form of oppression, and one which unwillingly restricts self-determination is nothing less than slavery. Indentured servitude is another such polite way of expressing the same basic idea, though in this case the promise of freedom is held out as motivation, like a carrot on a stick, but much like the cartoon analogy, the prize is all too often an illusion. Some see this reality, others do not or choose to ignore it, but all work towards a single common goal. Unlike most common goals, however, this particular goal is shared in name only, for despite the fact they all seek the same end-state, they work towards it individually rather than collectively.
What is this goal? Quite simply, the betterment of their offspring. This is the proverbial desire of the parent to leave their child in a better state than that which they occupied. The promise of citizenship and freedom, not unlike their ancient counterparts, motivates emigration to more successful states. The promise of a better life is not a promise between immigrant and their new homeland, though it may be presented as such — it is, rather, a promise made to the immigrant on behalf of their as-yet-unrealized children. In effect this holds the children of immigrants hostage to a system whose promises are contingent upon the shifting attitudes of people and politicians, and yet they themselves are more often than not the descendants of immigrants. A single generation of separation from the immigrant members of a family is itself no guarantee of a more sympathetic approach to the immigration of needy and destitute, such is the power of patriotic fervor instilled during childhood.
This is not true of all nations or states, but it remains alarmingly true across much of the developed world. The pattern remains to permit immigration in times of prosperity and crackdown in moments of crisis, blame for the crisis almost inevitably placed on the shoulders of the poorest and most at-risk populations. This will in turn split public opinion between those who remember immigrants as people and those who view them as security and financial liabilities. As nations reach such moments of perceived crisis, the risk of coming to an impasse rises accordingly. Enough such events — often but not necessarily in rapid succession — and the normal functions of public systems begin to seize up. The first signs of a potential system collapse can be correlated in the inability of legislatures to govern, reaching impasse upon impasse for reasons as diverse — and petty — as political showboating and reelection to mere “ideological differences.” The moment governments seize to be responsive to the needs of its own people, it will begin to fester and eventually parts will atrophy as one generation and then another become increasingly jaded.
The ensuing years are characterized by increasingly unrestrained attacks upon existing public institutions, while domestically a conflict of perceptions brings society ever closer to chaos. Among some there exists a rising perception of lawlessness, where among others its a perception of authoritarianism, and between such factions there comes inevitable conflict, first politically but eventually violently. Yet those in positions of authority remain incapable or unwilling to make the decisions necessary to “kick-start” the system. The likelihood of just such a breakthrough declines in proportion to the length of time since the onset of the disease, and just like a disease the deadlock will spread, coming to consume various other public systems. The ancient Greeks called it stasis, a term which remains appropriate today as truly we have seen that in the midst of chaos, the responsiveness of public systems does truly appear to be in a state of stasis.
As each facet of public life comes to be consumed by this state, private persons will begin to seek out ways of making their sense of what the system ought to be a reality. The inevitable result is chaos and violence. Those who suffered most before the collapse will suffer most in the new world, for the resources of the privileged will allow them the powers of arbiter — and only a betrayal among their own number can hope to destroy their stranglehold on society. Such was the case in the brutal proscriptions instituted under Sulla and the triumvirs Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian. The atrocities which Romans meted out upon themselves must have been the source of much trauma for the survivors, and yet in the ancient world it was the regular custom to destroy one’s opposition after revolution and civil war. Horrified though the Romans may have been, not a word is spoken for the thousands consumed by Rome’s world-spanning civil wars.
Think back to the immigrant who has toiled away their life for the uncertain promise of a better future for their children. Despite being yet another stick-and-carrot, the desire for the betterment of their children’s future remains immensely powerful and possibly unquantifiable, and along the same spectrum as the superhuman feats committed by mothers saving their children. We can detail at length the chemical and biological processes which dictate the way we react to the suffering or pain of our offspring, but more easily than that we can label it with a single, fixed word: love.
But how do we quantify love? Can you put a monetary amount on the psycho-emotional pain taken on by a parent? I think that you can, the same way that one can put a monetary amount on the cost of reparations for past crimes. But by what or by whose standard, and to what extent? How can one quantify the extent to which emotional and psychological trauma affects a person’s “baseline” over the course of a lifetime? The number of questions posed here are not meant to elicit concern over finding their answers. Rather the questions are meant to demonstrate the extreme anxieties and concerns parents take on for the sake of their children. Their labors are an investment in the truest sense of the word, a long-term investment in a future that one may never see — a true gift.
Suppose for a moment that we could harness this power — the power of love. The power of love is dispersed irregularly across the millions upon millions of individual dreams and their recipients. Dreams which are inevitably destined for failure, and which will in turn injure the minds of the next generation, who will never be capable of living up to the sacrifices made by their parents. The children will take the failure personally, believing themselves to be at fault, ultimately coming to perceive themselves as having let their parents down, and then fleeing from acts of kindness and love as parents seek to reconcile. The power of love has clearly lost some of its potency in transmission, and I suggest that it is the individualistic desires that drive parents to care for solely their children which deprives the power of it its full effect — its full loving effect, one which can change the way we approach one another, stranger, acquaintance, and kin alike.
The true power of love can only be accessed through its unconditional expression. It need not be so dramatic or grand an expression as a Biblical sacrifice, but rather the unconditional expression of love which comes through the often invisible actions taken by one for another. These actions go beyond the bounds of personal responsibility and comfort, another gift. Suppose for a moment that we somehow ask every one of these expressions of love to be directed more equitably, as opposed to individually. If we invested our love to all children, for example, as opposed to merely our own, our own might not be the most successful children in the world, but they will be positioned more equally with the rest of society.
Imagine a world in which we cared for our own “as a village” — not as individuals; as “the human tribe” — not the “family tribe.” If you only invest in one or two, the odds of failure are greater, and the consequent loss of resources for others may determine the decisions made by less-fortunate individuals — another recent, polite euphemism — in a vacuum of opportunities. If these fortunates have an individual value of 125 and the less-fortunates have a value of 10, dispersing the resources and efforts of the community as a whole across all members of the community might not result in more 125’s, but it would assure that fewer less-fortunates would be so far removed from the fortunes of their labor.
But one can readily see the folly of creating a society made up entirely of averages where the collective balance of fortune is dispersed so thinly as to be ineffective. With too much equality there seemingly comes a stagnation of thought and innovation? A society made up entirely of 25’s might hypothetically be more successful than a society made up a single 125 to every nine 10’s, but the stagnation of thought might itself be a symptom of the greater cancer of stasis metastasizing into all elements of society, and so we should not read too much into this analogy. No society can be distilled to mere numeric values and then expect those values to accurately reflect the realities of the individual experience. If human beings lacked any sense of empathy, then such stark numbers might tell the whole story — but so long as we remain thinking, feeling creatures, then the power of the whole will remain significantly greater than the sum of its parts. The “zero-sum game” cited by pundits and politicians is so much hand-waving designed to distract from the reality of the situation.
Human society to this point has operated as though trapped within a pressure cooker. As the number of people rises, so too does the intensity of the pressure placed upon them and the resources for which they daily compete. Exponential pressure is placed on the individual — and their allies — as the total continues to rise. An explosion is inevitable, one which destroys both the individual and the whole.
Let us suppose for a moment that such a truly monumental pressure cooker might be provided with a pressure-relief valve which would funnel the potential energy contained within. How does one measure the potential of a single human being? — of thousands or millions? In the chaos of the pressure cooker we have lost sight of why we have survived to this point. The bonds of society and our collective cause of survival is what allowed us to move from the grasslands of the African savannah to the ancient civilizations of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. The energy necessary to go from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the government imposed by Narmer upon the Lower Nile in the 32nd Century BCE is immense. No single man or even a single generation can do it alone, and as heroic and powerful as Narmer may appear, he did not alone crush the heads of every prisoner and every enemy combatant. It was instead what Narmer represented that mattered.
Narmer was the sum of his soldiers, slaves, staffers – his nation. If one person possesses the energy of the immigrant parent, imagine the combined power of a body of such individuals. If there were a way to quantify such power, the benefits of cooperation among such individuals would become immediately apparent, as demonstrated by the general benefits derived from rearing children within an extended household over a purely nuclear one. So although there remain a great many pitfalls of collectivization, the detrimental effects of individualism are just as evident and arguably more severe and widespread. In order to find a way to harness of the combined power of human will, a third way must be found.
Collected Speeches xii. 33