October 05, 2005

What's This "Exit" Stuff All About?

A lot of the posts on this site have talked about something called "the Exit". This terms comes from the work of Ernest Gellner, and is discussed particularly in Alan Macfarlane's Making of the Modern World (and is summarized briefly here.) It refers to the transition point in human history where production become in general a more effective means of survival and prosperity than predation. It also refers to the fact that predation-based societies have historically developed into increasingly static and calcified bureaucracies, and subsequently collapse under either internal or external pressures. The Exit is the escape from this cycle. The means by which the Exit is achieved is generally called the Industrial Revolution. Its side-effects are constitutional democracy, increased literacy and education, and a generally more humane social environment.

Our society has navigated the Exit so successfully that many people have entirely forgotten what life before the Exit was like. Some of these idiots are described here. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 5, 2005 11:09 PM

Thank you. I was going to ask about the Exit myself. Sounded too much like an assisted suicide group. However, here is a question we need to tackle. Is the movement all one way? In other words can post-Exit societies become calcified stratified bureaucracies that are destroyed by various internal and external pressures?

Posted by: Helen at October 6, 2005 05:45 AM

Good question, Helen. One way to try to understand fascism is as a revolt against the Exit. Everything they didn't like about "bourgeois capitalism" was exactly the set of qualities that made the Exit possible. When we look at what the fascists of various stripes tried to create when they had a chance to implement their ideal concepts they were trying to return to the psychological qualities of pre-Exit societies, while of course still enjoying the fruits of post-Exit technologies.

In fact, almost any of the movements today that reject the fundamental values of freedom, individual autonomy, social and technological dynamism, and critical rational inquiry (radical Islamism, anarcho-primitivism, etc.) can be seen as attempts to crawl back into the hole the human race had found itself in before the Exit.

Milder forms of bureaucratic stasis, which preserve the rhetoric of progress and freedom but smother it with nanny-state policies, can of course be found closer to home. Especially in a city only a few hundred miles from you known for chocolates, mussels and white wine, and vast mounds of regulations.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 6, 2005 01:08 PM

The chocolate and the mussels are quite good (though not together). I fear we can find that mild form of stasis a lot closer to home in a city known for the Tower of London, bobbies in helmets (when you can find them) and the British Museum. (You can get mussels and really good chocolate as well.) That was the point of my question. It seems to me that no path in history is lineal and straight and one can always get back through the door marked Exit.

Posted by: Helen at October 6, 2005 07:44 PM