Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/

‘I’ Article on ‘Bardcore’ – Postmodern Fusion of Medieval Music and Modern Pop

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/08/2020 - 8:20pm in

I’m a fan of early music, which is the name that’s been given to music from the ancient period through medieval to baroque. It partly comes from having studied medieval history at ‘A’ level, and then being in a medieval re-enactment group for several years. Bardcore is, as this article explains, a strange fusion of modern pop and rock with medieval music, played on medieval instruments and with a medieval vocal arrangement. I’ve been finding a good deal of it on my YouTube page at the moment, which means that there are a good many people out there listening to it. On Monday the I’s Gillian Fisher published a piece about this strange new genre of pop music, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1199’, with the subtitle ‘Bardcare reimagines modern pop with a medieval slant. Hark, says Gillian Fisher’. The article ran

“Hadst thou need to stoop so low? To send a wagon for thy minstrel and refuse my letters, I need no longer write them though. Now thou art somebody whom I used to know.”

If you can’t quite place this verse, let me help – it’s the chorus from the 2011 number one Somebody That I Used to Know, by Gotye. It might seem different to how you remember it, which is no surprise – this is the 2020 Bardcore version. Sometimes known as Tavernwave, Bardcore gives modern hits a medieval makeover with crumhorns a plenty and lashings of lute. Sometimes lyrics are also rejigged as per Hildegard von Blingin’s offering above.

Algal (41-year-old Alvaro Galan) has been creating medieval covers since 2016, a notable example being his 2017 version of System of a Down’s Toxicity. Largely overlooked at the time, the video now boasts over 4.4 million views. Full-time musician Alvaro explains that “making the right song at the right moment” is key, and believes that Bardcore offers absolute escapism.

Alvaro says: “What I enjoy most about Bardcore is that I can close my eyes and imagine being in a medieval tavern playing for a drunk public waiting to dance! But from a more realistic perspective , I love to investigate the sounds of the past.”

In these precarious times, switching off Zoom calls and apocalyptic headlines to kick back with a flagon of mead offers a break from the shambles of 2020. Looking back on simpler times during periods of unrest is a common coping mechanism, as Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at New York’ Le Moyne College explained in her paper on nostalgia: “Nostalgic yearning for the past is especially likely to occur during periods of transition, like maturing into adulthood or aging into retirement. Dislocation or alienation can also elicit nostalgia.”

The fact that Bardcore is also pretty funny also offers light relief. The juxtaposition of ancient sound with 21st-century sentiment is epitomised in Stantough’s medieval oeuvre, such as his cover of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Originally from Singapore, Stantough (Stanley Yong), 35 says: “I really like the fact we don’t really take it very seriously. We’re all aware what we’re making isn’t really medieval but the idea of modern songs being “medievalised” is just too funny.”

One of Bardcore’s greatest hits, is Astronomia by Cornelius Link, which features trilling flutes and archaic vocal by Hildegard. It’s a tune that has been enjoyed by 5.3 million listeners. Silver-tongued Hildegard presides over the Bardcore realm, with her cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance clocking up 5 million views. Canadian illustrator Hildegard, 28, fits Bardcore around work and describes herself as “an absolute beginner” with the Celtic harp and “enthusiastically mediocre” with the recorder. Her lyric adaptations have produced some humdingers such as “All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots which she sings in rich, resonant tones.

HIldegard, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes the Bardcore boom can be “chalked up to luck, boredom and a collective desire to connect and laugh.”

In three months, the Bardcore trend has evolved with some minstrels covering Disney anthems, while others croon Nirvana hits in classical Latin. While slightly absurd, this fusion genre has ostensibly provided a sense of unity and catharsis.

The humming harps and rhythmic tabor beats evoke a sense of connection with our feudal ancestors and their own grim experience of battening down the hatches against the latest outbreak. Alongside appealing to the global sense of pandemic ennui, connecting to our forbears through music is predicated upon the fact that they survived their darkest hours. And so shall we.

While Bardcore’s a recent phenomenon, I think it’s been drawing on trends in pop music that have happening for quite long time. For example, I noticed in the 1990s when I went to a performance of the early music vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble, when they performed at Brandon Hill in Bristol that the audience also included a number of Goths. And long-haired hippy types also formed part of the audience for Benjamin Bagley when he gave his performance of what the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf probably sounded like on Anglo-Saxon lyre at the Barbican centre in the same decade.

Bardcore also seems connected to other forms of postmodern music. There’s the group the Postmodern Jukebox, whose tunes can also be found on YouTube, who specialise in different 20th century arrangements of modern pop songs. Like doing a rock anthem as a piece of New Orleans Jazz, for example. And then there’s Orkestra Obsolete, who’ve arranged New Order’s Blue Monday using the instruments of the early 20th century, including musical saws and Theremin. There’s definitely a sense of fun with all these musical experiments, and behind the postmodern laughter it is good music. An as this article points out, we need this in these grim times.

Here’s an example of the type of music we’re talking about: It’s Samuel Kim’s medieval arrangement of Star Wars’ Imperial March from his channel on YouTube.

And here’s Orkestra Obsolete’s Blue Monday.







Getting Pulled Over; A Teachable Moment

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 01/08/2020 - 12:12am in

Last week, while driving in Ketchum, Idaho, I was pulled over for speeding (driving 36 mph in a 25-mph zone.) The traffic stop proceeded along expected lines: the police car switched on its flashing red and blue lights as it sidled up behind me, I pulled over to the side of the road, the policeman walked over and asked for my driver’s license and vehicle registration and insurance etc. After I handed those over, I was treated to a brief lecture on the need to observe posted speed limits; I apologized, received a warning, and resumed my journey to a local trailhead. 

This little incident was watched, with considerable interest, by my seven-year old daughter, sitting in the backseat. 

After the policeman had driven off in his cruiser, and as we began driving toward our planned hike, I asked my daughter what she made of the encounter she had just witnessed. She said that she’d been a little frightened as the police scare her, but she was happy all had ended well. I asked her why she was scared of the police, and she replied that she’d heard–probably from family conversations–of the terrible things they often do to people they detain, search, arrest or imprison. I then said to her that she’d witnessed an important part of her training and acculturation as a legal subject: she’d learned an important lesson about the reach and power of the law. It was an essential part of her growing up in a ‘legal society,’ in ‘a land of laws, not men.’

For in witnessing an uniformed police officer pull over her father, my daughter had learned that her father, the supposed co-master of the domestic dominion along with her mother, one who regulated most details of her life, was subject to a power greater than his: that of the state, and its armed, uniformed representatives, the police. She’d seen her father, an authority apparently unquestioned –except by her mother, interrupted in his ventures, commanded to cease and desist whatever it was he was doing, reduced to the role of a polite, deferential subject, one only too willing to be inconvenienced by a perfect stranger who just happened to be wearing a gun and a badge. She’d witnessed a presumed regulatory order come crumbling down, replaced by a far more far-reaching, powerful, and certainly impressive one. Nothing in my parenting arsenal of the raised voice, the disapproving tone, the wagging finger, can compete with the starched uniform, the holstered weapon, the flashing lights, the dramatic intervention in a public space. She saw me defer; she saw me obey; she saw me comply. (I’m unfailingly polite with armed police; I am, after all, a brown man with an accent.) 

My daughter was in fact, witnessing a species of social construction at work: the sustenance and promulgation of an ideology of law, one essential component of which is to remind the legal subjects of the reach and extent of legal power in showy, public, demonstrations of it. All those who drove by on Highway 75 while I was receiving my little re-education learned a little lesson too; but the most important spectators were the children, legal subjects in training. Children must learn their parents, while powerful, are not the supreme regulators of their lives, the state is. Secular citizens are especially impressed by such displays of the power of the law–there is a new Supreme Force in town, and it wears a blue uniform. 

The Paradox of Individualism and Hierarchy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 31/07/2020 - 11:59pm in


Energy, Psychology

In the early 1970s, Geert Hofstede discovered something interesting. While analyzing a work-attitude survey that had been given to thousands of IBM employees around the world, Hofstede found that responses clustered by country. In some countries, for instance, employees tended to prefer an autocratic style of leadership. But in other countries, employees preferred a democratic approach. These differences, Hofstede proposed, were caused by culture.

Today, Hofstede’s work has blossomed into the field of ‘cross-cultural analysis’. It’s a vibrant discipline that looks at how attitudes and beliefs vary between societies. The tools of the trade are simple surveys and questionnaires. But the goal of cross-cultural analysis is ambitious. It aims, as Hofstede puts it, to understand the ‘software of the mind’.

✹ ✹ ✹

Geert Hofstede didn’t invent the idea that culture varies between societies. (That idea is probably as old as culture itself.) But he did pioneer the quantification of culture. Before Hofstede, there was much grand theory, but little measurement. Theories of culture date at least to the Greeks, who were perhaps the first to give culture a name. (They called it the nomos.)1 The modern theorization of culture, however, probably began with sociologist Max Weber.

Like many social scientists, Weber wanted to understand the origin of capitalism. Why, he asked, did capitalism arise in Western Europe? His answer was that Westerners had adopted a peculiar attitude towards work — what Weber called the protestant work ethic. Rather than see work as a chore, protestants (especially Calvinists) saw industriousness as a virtue. This culture shift, Weber argued, was key to understanding the emergence of capitalism. Without the idea that work was a virtue, people would meet their basic needs and then relax. But when work became a goal in itself, the wheels of capitalist accumulation were set in motion.

While Weber’s specific hypothesis may not be correct, it’s now clear that he was onto something. The transition to capitalism came with a host of changes in people’s worldview. Evolutionary psychologist Joseph Henrich calls it becoming WEIRD. This is his acronym for ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic’. It’s a clever double entendre because people in WEIRD countries are legitimately weird. From visual perception to attitudes about cooperation, WEIRD people have psychologies that differ from the rest of the world. (For an exposition, see Henrich’s seminal paper The weirdest people in the world?)

That brings us to economics. Like Weber, economists explain the origin of capitalism in terms of a cultural shift. But rather than focus on work ethic, economists focus on exchange. It’s the belief in unfettered market exchange, they claim, that leads to economic development.

Interestingly, the quantification of culture seems to support this view. People in developed countries tend to be more individualistic than those in less developed countries. WEIRD people also tend to be more skeptical of autocracy and more receptive to norm-shirking behavior (behavior that economists would call ‘innovation’). This evidence seems to support the narrative (cherished by economists) that economic development is a product of the free market.

A paradox

Although WEIRD psychology fits well with the free-market narrative, it’s not clear that this narrative is actually true. In fact, there’s good evidence that economic development involves not the spread of the market, but rather, its death.

Industrialization is associated with the growth of large institutions — big firms and big governments. (See Energy and Institution Size for a review of the evidence.) Look within these big institutions and you won’t find a free market. Instead, you’ll find a chain of command that concentrates power at the top. In an important sense, then, economic development involves not the spread of the free market, but the growth of hierarchy. (For details, see Economic Development and the Death of the Free Market.)

If industrialization involves the growth of hierarchy, we’re left with a paradox. Developed countries are both more hierarchical and more individualistic than their less-developed counterparts. How can this be true?

I explore here an interesting possibility. What if individualism does the opposite of what we think? Rather than promote autonomy, might individualism actually stoke the accumulation of power? This idea sounds odd at first. But I hope to convince you that it’s plausible.

Narrative 1: Developing through the free market

We’ll begin our journey into culture by looking at the evidence for cultural change. I’ll first look at this evidence in a way that supports the free-market narrative. Afterwords, I’ll turn this narrative on its head.

To get into the free-market mindset, we’ll drink the neoclassical Kool-Aid. According to neoclassical economics, the best way to promote economic development is to liberate self-interest. Let people act for their own gain, say economists, and economic development will take care of itself. This concept of the ‘invisible hand’ defies the ethic (ingrained in many of us from birth) that selfishness is a vice. In economic theory, selfishness is a virtue.

Despite its counter-intuitiveness, the idea of the invisible hand seems to be supported by cross-cultural analysis. As societies industrialize, the following cultural shifts tend to occur:

  1. People become more individualistic.
  2. People become more skeptical of authoritarian power.
  3. Norms weaken and people become more tolerant of deviant behavior.

In general, then, economic development comes with greater autonomy of the individual — at least as perceived by cultural ideals.


Let’s look at the evidence for culture shift. We’ll begin with a measure of culture pioneered by Geert Hofstede. Based on his analysis of IBM employees, Hofstede proposed a cultural spectrum between ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’. Hofstede describes this spectrum in Table 1.

Table 1: Individualism vs. Collectivism
Source: Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context

Figure 1: As societies industrialize, they become more individualistic. I plot here Geert Hofstede’s individualism index against energy use per capita in various countries. [Sources and methods]

To measure the individualism-collectivism spectrum, Hofstede created the ‘individualism index’. The larger this index, the more individualistic the culture. In Figure 1, I’ve plotted Hofstede’s individualism index (in different countries) against energy use per capita. Individualism, it seems, tends to increase with industrial development. So the evidence suggests that if you let individuals pursue their self interest, economic growth will take care of itself.

While the results in Figure 1 seem straightforward, there’s an important caveat. It’s not clear that Hofstede’s individualism index actually measures what he claims. Hofstede created the index by weighting responses to a dozen or so questions, assigning some responses to the ‘individualist pole’ and others to the ‘collectivist pole’. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious that the questions on the ‘collectivist pole’ are actually related to collectivist ideology. But despite these problems, Hofstede’s results have been replicated using more credible metrics.2 So it seems safe to conclude that people become more individualistic with economic development. Point for the free-market narrative.

Power distance

Let’s move on to another cultural metric pioneered by Geert Hofstede — one that he calls the ‘power distance index’. This index measures the degree to which people believe in autocratic rule. When people are skeptical of autocratic rule, the ‘power distance’ is small. But when people believe that autocracy is ‘natural’ (and that obedience is a virtue), the ‘power distance’ is large. Hofstede describes the two poles in Table 2.

Table 2: Large vs. Small Power Distance
Source: Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context

Figure 2: As societies industrialize, they become more skeptical of autocratic power. I plot here Geert Hofstede’s power distance index against energy use per capita in various countries. A decrease in the power distance index indicates that people are less inclined to prefer autocratic rule. [Sources and methods]

In Figure 2, I plot Hofstede’s power distance index against energy use per capita. As energy use increases, power distance tends to decrease. This indicates that as societies industrialize, people become more skeptical of autocratic rule.

As with the trend towards individualism, this growing skepticism of power fits with the free-market narrative. Economists like Milton Friedman love to emphasize the ‘free’ part of the free market. (Never one for subtly, Friedman drove the point home in a book called Capitalism and Freedom). The cultural evidence seems to be on Friedman’s side. As societies industrialize, they become more skeptical of autocratic power, and hence, more ‘freedom loving’. Point for the free-market narrative.

Cultural Tightness

Since Hofstede’s pioneering work in the 1970s, scientists have created many different measures of culture. Perhaps the most famous is psychologist Michele Gelfand’s distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ cultures. ‘Tight’ cultures, she proposes, have strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior. ‘Loose’ cultures have weak norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior.

Table 3 shows the questions Gelfand uses to gauge cultural tightness. Answering ‘yes’ to questions 1, 2, 3 or 5 and ‘no’ to question 4 indicate tighter culture. From these questions, Gelfand constructs a ‘tightness index’.

Table 3: Measuring cultural ‘tightness’
Source: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers

Figure 3: As societies industrialize, cultural norms loosen. I plot here Michele Gelfand’s index of cultural tightness against energy use per capita in various countries. Tighter cultures have stronger norms and less tolerance for deviant behavior. [Sources and methods]

In Figure 3, I plot Gelfand’s index of cultural tightness against energy use per capita. As energy use increases, cultures tend to become ‘looser’, meaning they become less conformist and more tolerant of deviance. (Note, though, that the trend is weak.)

Our measurement of culture again seems to support the free-market narrative. Economists claim that competitive markets drive innovation. But this works only if people are receptive to new ideas. Apparently such openness tends to increase with industrialization. Point for the free-market narrative.

✹ ✹ ✹

Let’s summarize this foray into cultural measurement. Industrialization comes with a host of cultural changes — a fact that is unsurprising. It’s not our DNA that separates industrial humans from our ancient ancestors. It’s our ideas.

That being said, the direction of the cultural shift is somewhat surprising — especially to critics of mainstream economics (like me). The evidence points to a cultural shift towards individualism — exactly what economists say is required for free markets to work. But when viewed through an evolutionary lens, this cultural shift is odd. The problem is that in evolutionary terms, the interests of individuals rarely (if ever) align with the interest of the group. Your best option, as a selfish individual, isn’t to contribute to society. Your best option is to free ride. This means that the success of social species (like humans) depends crucially not on elevating self interest, but on suppressing it. (See Unto Others for an exposition.)

Contrary to what evolutionary theory claims we should do, humans seem to have industrialized not by suppressing self interest, but by stoking it. Does this mean evolutionary theory is wrong? Unlikely. The crucial point is that we’ve so far measured human ideas. But evolution cares only for actions. Now here’s the curious thing. When we measure human actions, we get a very different story than the one told by our ideas.

The disconnect between ideas and actions

Ideas are not the same as actions — a fact that the founders of the United States made clear. In crafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson heralded the unalienable rights of individuals:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Curiously, Jefferson wrote these words (which have become synonymous with human rights) while owning hundreds of slaves. Obviously Jefferson’s ideas were disconnected from his actions. This example illustrates a basic fact of life. Although we’d like to think that our actions align with our ideas, they need not.

This disconnect is important, especially if we want to ground the study of culture in evolutionary theory. In evolutionary terms, all that matters is what our ideas do (to our behavior). What we think they do is irrelevant. For this reason, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson argues that belief systems are often ‘massively fictional’. Their claims about the world are different than their effect on behavior:

Groups governed by belief systems that internalize social control can be much more successful than groups that must rely on external forms of social control. For all of these (and probably other) reasons, we can expect many belief systems to be massively fictional in their portrayal of the world.

(David Sloan Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral)

Having measured how ideas change with industrialization, let’s do the same with behavior. As you’ll see, doing so turns the free-market narrative on its head.

Narrative 2: Developing through hierarchy

Human behavior obviously has many dimensions. But here I’ll focus on just one: the tendency to organize using hierarchy. This tendency needn’t have a direction. But if it did, the cultural evidence suggests it should be downward. That’s because industrialization brings a shift towards individualism. With this shift, we’d expect societies to also become less hierarchical. But that’s not what happens. Instead, hierarchy actually increases.

There are many ways of looking at the growth of hierarchy, but perhaps the simplest is to count managers. That’s because the job of a manager is to control the activity of other people. It’s a job that, without hierarchy, couldn’t exist. So counting the relative number of managers gives a window into the extent of hierarchy.

When we count the number of managers (a measurement of human behavior), we get a very different story than the one told by the measurement of culture. With industrialization comes a trend towards more hierarchy (not less). Figure 4 tells the tale. As energy use per capita grows, so does the relative number of managers. True, this is indirect evidence for the growth of hierarchy. But with a little math, we can show that the trend in Figure 4 is exactly what we’d expect if hierarchy increases with energy use. (See Economic Development and the Death of the Free Market for details.)

Figure 4: As societies industrialize, the relative number of managers grows. I plot here the managers’ share of total employment against energy use per capita. Lines represent the path through time of countries. The black line is the average trend. For sources and methods, see Economic Development and the Death of the Free Market.

In light of this growth of managers, our measurements of culture now seem paradoxical. At the very time that societies became more individualistic, hierarchy actually increased.

To drive this point home, let’s directly compare ideas and actions. We’ll plot our cultural metrics (ideas) against the managers’ share of employment (action). Figures 5 to 7 show the comparison, with fascinating results. Our cultural metrics correlate with the growth of managers — but in the wrong direction. As the relative number of managers grows:

  • individualism increases (Figure 5)
  • power distance decreases (Figure 6)
  • culture becomes looser (Figure 7)

Figure 5: Societies become more individualistic as the number of managers grows. I plot here Geert Hofstede’s individualism index against managers’ share of total employment in various countries. [Sources and methods]

Figure 6: Societies become more skeptical of autocratic power as the number of managers grows. I plot here Geert Hofstede’s power distance index against managers’ share of total employment in various countries. [Sources and methods]

Figure 7: Societies become ‘looser’ as the number of managers grows. I plot here Michele Gelfand’s index of cultural tightness against managers’ share of total employment in various countries. [Sources and methods]

It seems that there is a mismatch between our ideas and our actions. When we measure ideas, we see a trend towards more individualism, more skepticism of power, and greater tolerance for deviance. Yet when we measure behavior, we see a trend towards more hierarchy. In other words, people claim to believe more in autonomy while at the same time living as subordinates within ever larger hierarchies.

This is the paradox of individualism and hierarchy.

Resolving the paradox

As a scientist, I live for a good paradox. Why? Because paradoxes signal an inconsistency in our knowledge that we must resolve. When we find a paradox, one of two things must be true:

  1. The evidence (that leads to the paradox) is wrong
  2. Our ideas are wrong

So which is the case here? Since empirical research is always uncertain, it’s possible that the evidence (above) is wrong. But let’s assume that the evidence is sound. This means that both individualism and hierarchy grow together. How can we resolve this paradox?

We’ll start by defining the concepts at work, beginning with autonomy. To be autonomous is to control your own actions. By extension, to lack autonomy is to lack control over your actions. Now let’s think about how humans lose autonomy. “Man is born free,” Rousseau famously noted, yet “everywhere he is found in chains”. The chains are (mostly) metaphorical. We lose our freedom by surrendering control of our actions to other people. In other words, by becoming subordinates.

The act of subordination is an intrinsic part of hierarchy. A hierarchy is a nested set of power relations between superiors and subordinates. Because of this element of subordination, it seems paradoxical that people could claim to believe more in individual autonomy while simultaneously working in ever larger hierarchies.

Diving a little deeper, though, and we realize that there needn’t be a paradox. The key is that our perception of the world is likely driven not by the larger social context, but by our interaction with specific people. In a hierarchy, our perception of autonomy is probably driven by interaction with direct superiors. Now here’s the crucial part. This interaction is largely independent of the size of the hierarchy in which we work. If you have a tyrannical boss, you’re going to feel subjugated … regardless of whether you work in a huge company like Walmart or a tiny mom-and-pop shop. So your perception of autonomy comes not from the size of the hierarchy in which you belong, but from the strength of the power relations within it.

This distinction is key. Our evidence for hierarchy (the growth of managers) measures the size of hierarchies. It says nothing about the strength of power relations within each hierarchy. Now, it seems intuitive that power relations might strengthen as hierarchies grow larger. But this need not be the case. In fact, it’s plausible that larger hierarchies actually have weaker power relations. If this is true, it means that people work in ever larger hierarchies while perceiving that they have more autonomy.

Sam Walton vs. Al Capone

To resolve the paradox of individualism and hierarchy, I’ll distinguish between two dimensions of power:

  1. the number of people you influence
  2. the strength of this influence (per person)

The transition to capitalism, I argue, is associated with a vast increase in the size of hierarchies. This means that the number of people influenced by elites has greatly increased. At the same time, the strength of influence per person has probably declined, meaning subordinates perceive that they are more autonomous.

To frame this distinction, consider the difference between Sam Walton and Al Capone. As one of the most notorious gangsters in history, Al Capone had near absolute control over his subordinates. (Disobeying Capone meant risking death.) So in Capone’s gang, power relations were strong and (perceived) autonomy was likely limited. Now contrast Al Capone with Sam Walton, the founder of the largest corporation that has ever existed (Walmart). Compared to Capone, Walton’s control over subordinates was quite loose. And yet despite this looseness (perhaps because of it), Sam Walton controlled far more subordinates than Capone ever did. Capone demanded exacting obedience from (at most) a few thousand gang members. Sam Walton, in contrast, demanded loose obedience from millions of Walmart employees.

I compare the capitalist Sam Walton to gangster Al Capone because mafia organizations like Capone’s are essentially relics of the past. They’re organized around family ties, with control over the hierarchy largely a function of lineage. This system of lineage-based organization is probably the default mode of human hierarchy. It’s common in simple chiefdoms. And it’s found in all feudal societies.

As a rule, lineage-based hierarchies constrict autonomy. By design, inherited status makes it difficult both to move between hierarchies and to advance within them. Take feudal serfs as an example. If a serf didn’t like his lot in life, he couldn’t just find another master. (Serfs were tied to their lord for life.) And it was impossible for serfs to become lords. So vertical mobility wasn’t an option.

The transition to capitalism did away with this suffocating system. In capitalist societies, power became vendible. This change likely meant that capitalist hierarchies became looser than their feudal counterparts. The stifling order of birthright gave way to a more dynamic order based on ownership. And so autonomy increased. (For a discussion of this transition, see Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s Capital as Power.)

From feudal clan to business firm

The transition to capitalism saw the demise of the feudal clan (based on the extended family) and the rise of the nuclear family. It’s a story of the break-up of collectivism and the rise of individualism. (Or so it seems.)

Looking at the spread of individualistic psychology, economic historian Jonathan Schulz and colleagues recently found that it was strongly linked to cousin marriage. The lower the rate of cousin marriage, the more individualistic people’s psychology. The reason for this connection, Schulz argues, is that cousin marriage was a potent way of unifying the extended family. So when people stopped marrying their cousins, the feudal clan dissolved into the modern nuclear family.

So why did people stop marrying their cousins? Schulz thinks it was because of the (Western) Catholic church. In the Middle Ages, Catholic priests became obsessed with incest, and eventually banned cousin marriage. The effect, Schulz proposes, was to kill the feudal clan and give rise to an individualistic worldview. It’s a tale of the death of collectivism and the rise of individualism. But this is only part of the story.

The other side of the story is that at the same time that the family unit shrank (and people became more individualistic), the family also ceased to be the unit of economic organization. The feudal clan was replaced by the business firm. And business firms grew larger than any feudal clan ever was. (Think Sam Walton versus Al Capone.) So people’s ideas became individualistic at the same time that their behavior became more collectivist.

The double-edged sword

Hierarchy and individualism grow together. That’s what the evidence tells us. I’ve so far tried to explain how this paradox can be resolved. I’ll conclude by going a step further. Might individualism be a prerequisite for large hierarchies?

Here’s why this may be true. Hierarchy is an organizational tool that comes with both benefits and costs. The benefit is that hierarchy is a potent way of organizing large groups. By concentrating power, hierarchical groups can act cohesively in ways that egalitarian groups cannot. (For details, see Peter Turchin’s book Ultrasociety.) This cohesiveness is a huge advantage in group competition. But it comes with a cost — namely despotism. When groups use hierarchy to organize, rulers inevitably use their power to enrich themselves. This despotism, in turn, undermines the benefits of hierarchy to the rest of the group. So to reap hierarchy’s benefits, groups must concentrate power without succumbing to despotism.

Perhaps individualism grows with hierarchy because this worldview is a tool for limiting despotism. This is speculative, but plausible. The idea is that if you believe in autonomy, you’ll tend to oppose despotism. In so doing, you’ll increase the benefits of hierarchy. The result, paradoxically, is that rather than destroy hierarchy, individualism actually feeds its growth.

If true, this story turns economic theory on its head. It means that enshrining the rights of individuals doesn’t lead to atomistic free markets. It leads to collectivist hierarchies. One has to marvel at the irony. By preaching the miracle of the market, neoclassical economists may have helped forge their own collectivist nightmare.

Support this blog

Economics from the Top Down is where I share my ideas for how to create a better economics. If you liked this post, consider becoming a patron. You’ll help me continue my research, and continue to share it with readers like you.


Stay updated

Sign up to get email updates from this blog.

Keep me up to date

Sources and methods

Individualism and power distance

Data for the ‘individualism’ and ‘power distance’ indexes come from Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. In addition to measures for specific countries, Hofstede reports measures for the following regions: (1) Arab countries; (2) East Africa; and (3) West Africa. Based on Hofstede’s notes, I disaggregate these regions as follows:

  • Arab countries = Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates
  • East Africa = Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia
  • West Africa = Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo

I assign each country Hofstede’s metric for the region.

Cultural tightness

Data for cultural ‘tightness’ comes from Gelfand and colleague’s recent preprint The Importance of Cultural Tightness and Government Efficiency For Understanding COVID-19 Growth and Death Rates. You can download the data at the Open Science Framework:


Data for energy use per capita comes from the World Bank, series EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE. To these values I add an estimate for energy consumed through food (2000 kcal per day).


Data for managers’ share of employment comes from ILOSTAT, Table TEM_OCU, series EMPoc1P.

Matching data

Neither Hofstede’s nor Gelfand’s data come with measurement dates. Here’s how I match their measurements with energy and management data.

According to Hofstede, most of his data was gathered in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I match his reported metrics with energy data from 1970 (or the available year that is closest to 1970. Managers data begins in 1990. To match it with Hofstede’s metrics, I average the manager data over the whole period of available data.

Gelfand’s data was first reported in a 2010 paper. I assume that this was the date of data gathering. I match Gelfand’s data with energy use data in 2010 (or the available year closest to 2010). I match Gelfand’s data with the average of managers data over the period 1990-2010.


  1. In their book Capital as Power, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler put the Greek concept of the nomos at the center of their theory of capitalism. You cannot understand capitalism, they argue, without understanding the capitalist nomos. Nitzan and Bichler trace their thinking to Cornelius Castoriadis, who in turn, traces his thinking to Aristotle.↩
  2. Hofstede created his individualism index using a factor analysis of IBM survey questions. On the individualist pole were people who ranked ‘free time’, ‘job freedom’, and ‘job challenge’ highly. On the collectivist pole were people who ranked ‘job training’, ‘physical conditions’, and ‘use of skills’ highly.

    It’s not clear that this collectivist pole is the opposite of the individualistic pole. Rather than emphasize a lack of freedom or dependence on others, the collectivist pole seems to emphasize job conditions. There may be a hierarchy of needs at work here. When struggling to meet your material needs, you’re likely more concerned with job conditions than with personal freedom. But as your standard of living improves, you become concerned with a ‘higher’ set of needs.

    Many people have raised this objection to Hofstede’s individualism index. Still, follow up research that uses more convincing questions to gauge ‘collectivism’ correlate strongly with Hofstede’s original work (see Gelfand et al., Minkov et al and Schulz et al.)↩

Further reading

Fix, B. (2017). Energy and institution size. PLOS ONE, 12(2), e0171823. pone.0171823

Fix, B. (2019a). An evolutionary theory of resource distribution. Real-World Economics Review, (90), 65–97.

Fix, B. (2019b). Energy, hierarchy and the origin of inequality. PLOS ONE, 14(4), e0215692.

Gelfand, M. J., Bhawuk, D. P., Nishii, L. H., & Bechtold, D. J. (2004). Individualism and collectivism. Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, 437–512.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83.

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1), 2307–0919.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Minkov, M., Dutt, P., Schachner, M., Morales, O., Sanchez, C., Jandosova, J., … Mudd, B. (2017). A revision of Hofstede’s individualism-collectivism dimension. Cross Cultural & Strategic Management.

Nitzan, J., & Bichler, S. (2009). Capital as power: A study of order and creorder. New York: Routledge.

Schulz, J. F., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. P., & Henrich, J. (2019). The church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation. Science, 366(6466).

Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1999). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Harvard University Press.

Turchin, P. (2016). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

Wilson, D. S. (2010). Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press.

The Seize The Moment Podcast On Philosophy And Anxiety

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/07/2020 - 11:54pm in

Last week (or so), I appeared on the Seize the Moment video podcast, thanks to an invitation from Leon Garber (a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Psychotherapist, specializing in existential psychotherapy, who manages a blog exploring death, self-esteem, love, freedom, life-meaning, and mental health/mental illness) and Alen Ulman (who manages Ego Ends Now, a growing community for expanding consciousness about science, medicine, self actualization, philosophy and psychology.)

Leon and Alen were wonderful hosts; this led to an eclectic and wide-ranging discussion–which beginning from my essay at Aeon on anxiety, ranged over the following topics, as summarized by Leon and Alen:

    • The importance and utility of anxiety in self-discovery.
    • The influence our beliefs have on our perceptions and conceptions of the world.
    • Why emotional intensity should be redirected rather than suppressed.
    • The universality and inevitability of existential anxiety.
    • Human diversity and our inherent inability to fully capture an individual’s essence.
    • The fluctuating history of our understanding of mental illness.
    • How normality is used to sustain power structures.
    • Overcoming false dichotomies to see the strengths in our weaknesses and vice versa.
    • The sense of relief and freedom accompanying one’s acceptance of the inherent meaningless of the universe.

Do give the podcast a whirl, and please do leave comments and questions!

When You Don't Have a Clue, Call It "Culture"

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/07/2020 - 12:34am in



If we are all products of the same process of evolution, scientists must use the same terms to explain our actions as they use for other species.

The Grasshopper And The Ant Podcast On Philosophical Counseling And Anxiety

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/07/2020 - 4:46am in

I’ve recently had the pleasure of recording an audio podcast with the folks over at the Grasshopper and the Ant on the topic of philosophical counseling and anxiety. Many thanks to Pawan Bharadwaj for having me on and for giving me the opportunity to describe philosophical counseling, its relationship to philosophical reflection, to alternative therapeutic traditions like psychotherapy, and to its application to ‘problems’ like anxiety.

I’ve also recently recorded video podcasts with my friend John Tambornino (a fellow philosophical counselor) on the topic of philosophical reflection and our nation’s current racial crisis, and with the folks at the Seize the Moment Podcast on the topic of generalized anxiety and philosophical reflection. I’ll be posting links to those podcasts as and when they become available.

The Man Who Predicted Twitter Mobs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/07/2020 - 9:00pm in

Gustave Le Bon. Image credit: Arnopeters/Creative Commons. In May, the New York Times published an opinion piece I wrote on...

Read More

Philosophical Counseling And Hellmuth Kaiser On Successful Therapy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/07/2020 - 2:05am in

In Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, New York, 1980), Irvin Yalom writes:

The therapist healed, [Hellmuth] Kaiser believed, simply by being with the patient. Successful therapy requires “that the patient spends sufficient time with a person of certain personality characteristics.” What personality characteristics? Kaiser cited four: (1) an interest in people; (2) theoretical views on psychotherapy that do not interfere with his or her interest in helping the patient to communicate freely; (3) the absence of neurotic patterns that would interfere with the establishment of communication with the patient; (4) the mental disposition of “receptiveness”-being sensitive to duplicity or to the noncommunicative elements in the patient’s behavior. [p. 405; link added]

Note that Kaiser here specifies ‘personality characteristics’; these are not a matter of formal, professional qualification or training. Rather, these speak to the personal dimension of the interaction the therapist brings to her encounters with patient (or client.) They address, most directly, the question of what kind of person, what kind of human being, the therapist is. 

The first, ‘an interest in people,’ is considerably under-specified, but at the least we would expect the therapist to be in the trade because she is genuinely interested in the perplexity of the human condition, and find human beings’ problems to be worthy of sympathy, and generative of empathy. Without this minimal personal qualification (sadly missing in all too many supposed ‘healers’ today) the therapeutic process is doomed. 

Kaiser’s second requirement speaks to letting the therapist’s personal interest in the client trump any preconceived views of therapy; the client’s personality and problems are foremost, and if they do not fit an accepted template of treatment, diagnosis, analysis and prognosis, then so much the worse for the theoretical model.  This requirement means the therapist cannot be rigid and inflexible; the client cannot be shoehorned, brutally, into an existent mold of treatment. Theory is always trumped by the living testimony of the physically realized, concrete client present in the ‘clinic,’ not the abstract, blood-and-flesh-less ‘case’ of therapeutic theory. 

The third is a rather more direct claim on the personality of the therapist. Every therapist, as a human being, suffers from his or her understanding of their life; they often, if not always, require therapy themselves. These by themselves are not an impediment to therapy; however, an established, stubborn neurotic pattern of behavior (excessive, obsessive, selfish, self-interest being an obvious one) that would interfere with listening sympathetically or that results in intolerant, abusive responses to those seeking help, is an obvious disqualification. 

The fourth is an abstract claim but can be made more concrete by considering it an extension and elaboration of the first requirement: the therapist’s interest in people must entail a particular sensitivity–perhaps borne from acute observation, listening, and learning about humans and the human condition–that makes him or her alert to the complexities of a patient’s personality–such as lack of transparency, duplicity, intellectual dishonesty, lack of forthrightness–that can interfere with the therapeutic process.  

These personality characteristics are not designed to be eliminated or created by professional training. You cannot create an interest in people, for instance. In Kaiser’s view then, the therapist is not as much a qualified technician, as much as he is a sympathetic and engaged human being, committed to helping other human beings just like him. Imperfect, but hopeful of learning and reconfiguring themselves. 

Wrong framing can often just be a subtle influence…

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/07/2020 - 5:00pm in

The headline in yesterday’s Observer was ‘NHS chiefs in standoff with Treasury over emergency £10bn’. Apparently: The row piles pressure on Sunak to find more money for the NHS ahead of his summer statement on Wednesday. The article says that, according to the NHS: “There’s a very, very significant difference between the phrase ‘the NHS... Read more

A Mental Health Service for Inmates that Reduces Recidivism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/07/2020 - 7:00pm in

The odds of being pulled back into the criminal justice system once you’ve been in it are high — nearly 70 percent go back within three years. To break that cycle, Washington D.C. is trying something new: helping justice-involved individuals beat those odds by changing their thinking patterns, which could modify their behavior, and ultimately, their outcomes.

In addition to career training, housing support, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment, the city is in the process of piloting Thinking for a Change (T4C), an evidence-based cognitive behavior change program that addresses “criminogenic needs” — the patterns of thinking that can lead people to make irrational decisions, which can lead to incarceration.

“For people who have convinced themselves that they’re not going to be able to get a job, and that selling drugs is a much more effective way to make a living … Or their parents were incarcerated, and they think, ‘Well, that’s just who I am…,’ this is a program that could work,” said Brent Kiser, an executive fellow with FUSE Corps, a national nonprofit that matches professionals from the private sector with jobs in local government, who has been working with the District’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) to strengthen services for justice-involved people.

As recent events in Minneapolis and elsewhere have once again made clear, endemic racism and unaccountable policing are major factors in people becoming justice-involved in the U.S. So are economic systems that perpetuate wealth inequality. T4C is just one element of a broader structural transformation that can improve outcomes for people who are at risk of becoming trapped by the criminal justice system.

T4C, which consists of 25 facilitated group sessions of eight to 12 participants, helps this population reflect upon the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that might be contributing to criminal behavior. It also addresses developing social skills, non-confrontational ways of resolving conflict and problem-solving by helping people role-play different challenging scenarios and build coping strategies.

“We need to provide services that are specifically tailored to justice-involved individuals. When you don’t do that, there’s a big gap in service delivery. You’re missing out on an opportunity to help people,” Kiser said.

Juliana Taymans, a co-author of T4C who has conducted training in more than 40 states, illustrated the benefits of the program by recounting a story about a former T4C participant who was walking to the bus one morning on his way to work and started feeling very hungry. “He didn’t have enough money to both buy something to eat and pay the bus fare,” she said. At first, the young man saw only two choices. He could buy food with the money he had and then sneak onto a crowded bus, hoping not to get caught. Or he could pay the bus fare, stay hungry and be miserable all morning.

Among other things, the T4C program teaches participants to look beyond the options that immediately come to mind. “As he thought about it, he realized there was a third choice. He could pay for the bus, go to work and ask to borrow a few dollars from a coworker to get some breakfast,” said Taymans. “He knew it was a gamble, but it was one that probably wouldn’t lead to trouble. He made that choice, and it ended up working for him.”

Don’t Despair!

Solutions are everywhere.
Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.


Developed in 1997, T4C is considered a model intervention for justice-involved individuals. Studies on T4C and cognitive behavior therapy have found that people who complete the program have fewer probation violations, show significant improvements in social skills and problem-solving abilities, and recidivate less. One study, published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in 2006, found that 33 percent fewer participants who completed a year of T4C committed new offenses.

Like most things in life, T4C is not a silver bullet. “It’s just one element of what needs to be addressed in order for people to successfully reenter their communities,” said Kiser. “You have to consider important things like housing and job preparation.” But none of this matters, said Kiser, if programs don’t simultaneously help people take a new approach to how they address day-to-day challenges.

Uncovering What’s Needed

When Kiser started at DBH, he joined its newly formed Forensic Services Division, which focuses on the needs of justice-involved individuals. After meeting with dozens of internal and external stakeholders to find out what was — and wasn’t — working, he discovered that no standardized protocols existed for the more than 60 core service agencies the District contracts with for clinical services. “We weren’t really sure what qualities these service providers had, and whether they were adequately meeting the needs of our justice-involved clients,” said division director Chad Tillbrook.

Another issue was a lack of evidence-based programming dealing specifically with criminogenic needs. Kiser knew about the T4C program from his work at a federal prison in Kentucky, where he had helped develop a residential drug-treatment program. “Part of this program was helping people address the way they were thinking about certain things,” said Kiser. “So, my question when I came here was, ‘Are treatment providers locally doing that?’”

They weren’t — at least not with an evidence-based, highly structured curriculum like T4C. So Kiser reached out to the National Institute of Corrections, which has a cooperative agreement with T4C to provide facilitator training to eligible criminal justice professionals and government contractors at no cost. Last summer, the Institute held initial training for about 85 staff from the District’s core service agencies. “I wanted to see what local staff would think about the program, and if they thought the concept was something that would be beneficial for them and their clientele,” said Kiser.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. In a survey that Kiser administered after the training, more than half of attendees said they were interested in receiving more advanced training. One of those attendees was Johari Eligan, director of DBH’s Access Helpline, a 24-hour telephone service that connects people to behavioral health services. “I wanted to know more about the program so that we could share that resource with justice-involved individuals who call us,” she says.

Her team of behavioral health specialists receives referrals through a jail liaison, who lets them know when people are coming up on their release dates and might need services. Formerly incarcerated individuals also call the Helpline directly.

“What I liked about the training was that it really emphasized getting individuals to slow down their thinking and reactions,” Eligan says. For example, attendees were asked to complete a “thinking report,” in which they described a situation that challenged them and then reflected on the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that surfaced. They then role-played how they might react in that situation. The training provided a clear understanding of what the T4C services can offer, says Eligan, who shared examples and handouts from the training with her team.

Kiser is now looking to expand the training to more core service agencies. Because of limited capacity and other restrictions, the National Institute of Corrections was not able to come in for a second training, making it necessary to contract with T4C directly. DBH had some mental health block grant funds, Kiser said, so he wrote a proposal, and the agency director approved their use to pay for Taymans to do the training. The funding is currently going through the administrative process, and Kiser hopes to conduct the next training once coronavirus restrictions are lifted and the session can be done safely.

In consultation with Taymans, Kiser determined the best program for the department’s clientele would be a shorter, more flexible version of the original T4C program called Decision Points. Rather than 25 closed-group lessons that build upon each other, Decision Points condenses the content of the full course into five stand-alone lessons that anyone can attend. That flexibility is important, because turnover in the criminal justice system is high, and justice-involved individuals often move from one facility to another within the system.

To implement T4C programming as widely as possible, the department is using a “train the trainer” model, in which core service agency staff will be trained not only to facilitate T4C sessions, but to teach others how to facilitate as well. Because turnover among front line staff at core service agencies can be high, DBH is seeking to train middle and upper management. “If we impart the importance of these programs and give leaders the tools to effect change within their own agencies, then we can make this more sustainable,” said Tillbrook.

Ultimately, the department seeks to coordinate and broaden the services available for justice-involved individuals so that they are less likely to reoffend. “If this is really working, they won’t be coming back into the system,” Kiser said. “That’s ultimately why you’re doing it.”

This story was produced by FUSE Corps and originally appeared in Next City.

The post A Mental Health Service for Inmates that Reduces Recidivism appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.