The topics that generate conversations around the Autistic Collaboration community increasingly overlap with the topics that participants are bringing to the quarterly CIIC unconferences in Auckland and in Melbourne, which draw in many people with autistic cognitive lenses.
I have recently summarised the multiple crises of civilisation on the CIIC website, so there is no need to repeat theses observations as part of this article. I would rather like to highlight the deep levels of indoctrination that stand in the way of addressing the root causes of what is best described as extreme anthropocentrism or as “civilisation disorder”.
Human civilisations have incrementally produced more and more sophisticated tools for inducing and maintaining collective delusions. The increasing level of pathologisation of neurodiversity over the last century (measurable in the rise in diagnoses of “neurological disorders”) is a good indicator of deepening levels of indoctrination rather than an indicator of an evolutionary shift in human neurocognitive functioning.
Another good indicator of the multi-generational depth of cultural indoctrination becomes visible when examining shifts in the meanings of the words we use to describe human social behaviour within groups and between groups.
In the English language words that originally referred to companionship, ways of life, skilled handicraft, and track (I love how that relates to autistic focus and perseverance!) are used interchangeably with words that originally referred to anxiety, being busy, and marking of ownership with a burning iron. As part of the neoliberal capitalist agenda the words “business” and “brand” have found their way into many other languages in Europe and beyond.
- The origin of “brand”: Old English brand ‘burning’, of Germanic origin; related to German Brand, also to burn. The verb sense ‘mark with a hot iron’ dates from late Middle English, giving rise to the noun sense ‘a mark of ownership made by branding’ (mid 17th century), whence brand (the noun) (early 19th century).
- The origin of “business”: Old English bisignis ‘anxiety’ (see busy, -ness); the sense ‘state of being busy’ was used from Middle English down to the 18th century, but is now differentiated as busyness. The use ‘appointed task’ dates from late Middle English, and from it all the other current senses have developed.
- The origin of “trade”: Late Middle English (as a noun): from Middle Low German, literally ‘track’, of West Germanic origin; related to tread. Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.
- The origin of “company”: Middle English: from Old French compainie; related to compaignon (see companion).
Today those who object to branding and busyness are pathologised. To top it off, many people are so brainwashed that they are afraid of the collapse of civilisation.
The term “civilisation” traces back to notion of “city”, labels which also carry baggage related to wielding social power beyond human scale that people no longer think about.
Origin of “city“: Middle English: from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis ‘citizen’. Originally denoting a town, and often used as a Latin equivalent to Old English burh ‘borough’, the term was later applied to the more important English boroughs. The connection between city and cathedral grew up under the Norman kings, as the episcopal sees (many had been established in villages) were removed to the chief borough of the diocese.
Of course the label of “city” entails many functions beyond the old connection to social power. Valuable aspects of cities include all the other infrastructure functions of cities beyond the provision of a substrate for social power games.
Creating more humane societies involves surgical removal of social power games from our institutions and relationships.
Without self-awareness about the depth of cultural indoctrination and without many years of practice in the use of [critical] thinking tools any attempt to consciously construct a different and more humane society is destined to fail.
Whatever changes well intentioned cultural designers have in mind will quickly be picked up and co-opted by established power structures, leading to watered down objectives and activities that create an illusion of change, whilst actually reinforcing power gradients and an anthropocentric concept of civilisation, where civilised humans represent the pinnacle of valuable life forms, and where lesser humans and other species are relegated to lower rungs on the ladder of life, deemed unworthy of influencing the future of life on this planet.
The only potential avenue to escape the patterns of collective insanity known as civilisation is an educational approach that delivers compelling evidence that all civilisations have a dark side that eventually becomes the dominant characteristic, and thereby leads to the abuse and disillusionment of the “inmates” of civilised society.
Only those who have understood in their minds and who feel in their hearts that civilisation is not a worthwhile objective for human society are able to see the alternative that is waiting for us: a life within small (human scale) collaborative groups, embedded in a planetary network of life that includes all species.
Prior to the short era of civilisations, humans have spent several hundred thousand years in human scale egalitarian groups. This capability – the potential to develop and maintain egalitarian norms over many generations – distinguished us from other primates, and it enabled us to become more successful than all other primates.
What civilisation has taught us is that humans still have the potential to fall back into cultural norms that reinforce primate dominance hierarchies. This potential in combination with the relatively large size of the human brain enables
- super-human scale social groups,
- super-human scale cities,
- and spurious cultural complexity that manifests itself in dominance hierarchies and in increasingly energy intensive and self-destructive competitive social games.
From my discussions with other autistic people it seems that many of us would happily trade civilisation for life at human scale. Some of us are desperate to leave “civilisation” behind.
Life in human scale collaborative groups is possible today, and the number of non-hierarchical organisations is growing. In contrast to our pre-civilised ancestors we now have ubiquitous access to technologies that enable global peer to peer communication. The opportunity at our disposal consists of localised human scale organisation (minimising our ecological footprint) and global peer to peer sharing and validation of knowledge (maximising our learning opportunities).
Life at humane scale is life in a post busyness society. How much longer will it take for the majority of humans to reject the failed busyness of civilisation?
We don’t need to give up the infrastructure functions provided by our cities and technologies, we only need to give up super-human scale (inhumane) social structures and group identities.
The catch is that this may be easy for autistic people on the fringes of society, but it seems to be far from easy for most non-autistic people. Typical humans have a very hard time to differentiate culturally transmitted beliefs and desires from basic human needs and the innate human preference for peer to peer collaboration at eye level.
My conclusion: anthropocentric “civilisation” is a dead end. Humane neurodiversity friendly collaboration may hold the key to the future of human cultural evolution – not as a way of building a new civilisation, but as a way for identifying a viable niche for our descendants within the context of a thriving living planet.
The trigger for cultural change has been pulled
It is heartening to see Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power.
But like many other autistic people Greta sees right through the attempts of social engineering. Her real achievement lies in reaching a global audience by riding on top of the media machines that work on behalf of the establishment, and by simply pointing out the obvious truth to everyone – that the emperors have no clothes.
Now the global public knows that everyone else knows that the emperors have no clothes. From now on all established institutions are operating on borrowed time.
From now on autistic people will be appreciated for an innate trait that has been systematically engineered out of our societies and institutions: our deep aversion to lying and our inability to maintain hidden agendas.
Over the course of several hundred thousand years evolutionary forces have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes and levels of neurodiversity that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.
Employee-owned, non-hierarchical companies like the one I founded 16 years ago illustrate that neurodiversity is a collaborative advantage.
It is encouraging to see that we are not alone, and that more and more people and organisations are rejecting hierarchical forms of organisation.
The future is already taking shape.
Either humans have no future or the future is neurodiversity friendly!