A Response to the Oppression of Top-Down Systems

The Roman Empire came into contact with cultures and religious beliefs of major cultures, and was happy to assimilate any deities they encountered. Rome passed from a Republic to Imperial System when Julius Caesar declared himself Emperor. The Senate disapproved, and Caesar was assassinated. It was a stroke of good fortune for Octavian (Caesar’s heir apparent) that after Caesar’s death, a comet appeared in the sky above Rome and shone for seven straight days during funeral games held in Caesar’s honor. It was immediately believed that Caesar must have truly been descended from Venus, and the comet was Caesar’s soul returning to the heavens to join the gods. Octavian used the cause of deification to quickly build a base of political support that his rivals soon could not match. In ancient Rome the emperor as a god removed and superior supports the make up of the empire – a hierarchical society of control and order, unchanging, lasting eternally.

Octavian adopted the name Augustus Caesar and had coins minted with the comet with eight beams of light on one side. Over time, other coins were minted with the words “Devine Julius” and “sun of god” inscribed on them. Jesus was born during Augustus Caesar’s reign. According to the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth preached and was executed during the reign of Tiberius, by the authority of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea province. The early followers of Jesus tried to explain to one another the events of the tomb. They adopted the imagery of the Roman imperial system that was significant in their lives. Their approach was framed deliberately to reject the story of the emperor(s), and by extension their claim to power. In their story, instead of Caesar at the centre, it is now Jesus, who ascends to heaven, as the Son of God, creating a God who always stands with the oppressed.

According to Constantine’s biographer Eusebius, Constantine and his forces saw a cross of light in the sky, along with the Greek words for “In this sign conquer.” That night, Constantine had a dream in which Christ reinforced the message. The emperor marked the Christian symbol of the cross on his soldiers’ shields. When he triumphed at Milvian Bridge (taking control of the Western Empire), he attributed the victory to the god of the Christians. Modern scholars still debate the tale and whether Constantine’s conversion was sincere or a political maneuver. Regardless, in A.D. 313 Constantine met with Licinius, the eastern emperor, and together they issued the Edict of Milan. The edict granted “to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred.” In 380 CE Emperor Theodosius declared himself a Christian of the Nicene creed. He outlawed pagan religions and closed pagan temples.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Catholic Church was the only organized force in western Europe. The church took on the top-down power structure of the empire. Richard Tarnas explains: “As the Christian religion evolved in the West, its Judaic foundation readily assimilated the judicial and authoritarian qualities of the Roman imperial culture…” The Medieval Church was the most dominant institution in western Europe; it was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rent and fees for offices and services. Its top-down structure facilitated control of information and creation of wealth. People living in towns began to buy their freedom during the feudal system. During the 13th and 14th centuries the autonomous city states in northern Italy were able to thrive, while the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor maneuvered for influence. They developed a monopoly on the trade of spices to the rest of the world.

The trading systems in the West became a succession of monopolies. The next most urban area after Italy was the Low Countries. In Flanders, Bruges became an important centre as part of the Hanseatic League, what had a monopoly on the trade around the Baltic. The Portuguese gained control of the spice trade by aggressively displacing the Muslim middlemen from the markets of India and the Far East. In the 17th century the Dutch wrestled the spice trade from the Portuguese and forced the British to focus on India. Control of the Moluccas assured them monopoly of nutmeg, cloves and mace; and control of the cinnamon trade when they ousted the Portuguese from Ceylon. The Dutch monopoly was organized under the control of Dutch East Indies Company. The British East India Company had monopoly on the trade to India – once had one of the largest armies in the world – used its power to take over the sub-continent.

By the end of the 18th century, the Industrial age in Britain was heralded with mechanization of the weaving industry and the invention of the steam engine that allowed more effective pumping of water in coal mines to increase the supplies. More efficient, mechanized production meant Britain’s new textile factories could meet the growing demand for cloth both at home and abroad, where the nation’s many overseas colonies provided a captive market for its goods. On the social scene Herbert Spencer, who promoted Lamarckism, coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”, and concluded that social evolution would eliminate the less fit or weaker individuals. In 1884 [Spencer] argued, for instance, that people who were unemployable or burdens on society should be allowed to die rather than be made objects of help and charity. To do this, apparently, would weed out unfit individuals and strengthen the race.

The wealthy elite of the late 19th century included the robber baron, a term for many of the powerful 19th-century American industrialists and financiers who made fortunes by monopolizing huge industries through the formation of trusts. The term “robber baron” dates back to the Middle Ages and carries a negative connotation. Robber barons typically employed ethically questionable methods to eliminate their competition and develop a monopoly in their industry. Often, they had little empathy for workers. The robber barons’ lack of concern for the social welfare of the community, and even their companies’ own workers, ruined millions of lives. Injuries on the job due to unsafe working conditions were a major cause of death and permanent injury for decades during this period. The yearly total of such deaths, injury and illness in the USA around 1900 has been estimated at around a million workers.

When the Mont Pelerin Society first met, in 1947, its political project did not have a name. But it knew where it was going. The society’s founder, Friedrich von Hayek, remarked that the battle for ideas would take at least a generation to win, but he knew that his intellectual army would attract powerful backers. Its philosophy, which later came to be known as neoliberalism, accorded with the interests of the ultra-rich, so the ultra-rich would pay for it. Hayek claims social evolution rests upon the transmission of acquired characteristics tending towards equilibrium, that is, a theory of cultural evolution consistent with Lamarckian tradition. Hayek maintains that with social evolution “the decisive factor is not the selection of physical and inheritable properties of individuals but the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits…the whole cultural inheritance which is passed by learning and imitation.”

Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004, is a libertarian conservative political advocacy group in the US funded by David and Charles Koch. The AFP Foundation describes its mission as “educating and training citizens to be courageous advocates for the ideas, principles, and policies of a free society — knowing that leads to the greatest prosperity and wellbeing for all – especially the least fortunate.” In reality, it is part of a network that uses dark money to fund an interlocking array of organizations that can work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses and Congress. This system eliminates the need to debate libertarian ideas in elections; but ensures that libertarian views on regulation and taxes are ascendant in majority of state governments, the Supreme Court and Congress. Their “social welfare” programs, for the most part, consist of promoting individual freedom.

C S Lewis observes, “My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse.” Top-down systems tend to deal with the abstract while bottom-up systems deal with ‘facts on the ground’. When something is designed and pushed down from the top there is an underlying belief that the few know better than the masses. We need to reject making public policy decisions through the lens of the market (complex and multi-faceted issues are oversimplified allowing self-responsibility to become the dominant issues, and life-style change the response) as determined by the few and switch to filter social and economic policies through a bottom-up system like the lens of the social determinants of health before they are implemented to ensure they support actions that reduce inequities in the system.

Hayek underestimates the contribution to evolutionary economics that is made by the bottom-up system of Charles Darwin.  Robert Frank argues that Darwin’s understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Adam Smith’s. And the consequences of this fact are profound. Indeed, the failure to recognize that we live in Darwin’s world rather than Smith’s is putting us all at risk by preventing us from seeing that competition alone will not solve our problems. Darwin’s insight that individual and group interests often diverge sharply – suggests Smith’s idea was almost an exception to the general rule of competition. The themes of inequality and competition are driving today’s public debate on how much government we need. The reason Frank gives is “Darwin’s wedge” – a term he coins to emphasize a divergence between individual and group interests which in turn causes wasteful competition and collective loss.1

A bottom-up system is data driven, focuses on incoming sensory data, and takes place in real time. The social determinants of health include factors such as income data, social support, early childhood development, education, employment, housing and gender. They include the factors that affect health outside of the four walls of the hospital. Governmental social policies have a direct impact on the social determinants of health. Research shows that the social determinants of health can be more important than health care or lifestyle choices in influencing health. The inequities in the conditions in which people are born, live and work are driven by inequities in power, money, and resources. Political, economic, and resource distribution decisions made outside the health sector need to focus on health as an outcome across the social distribution (as opposed to focus solely on increasing productivity of a top-down system), and include direct involvement with communities facing oppression and injustices.

1Darwin’s Invisible Hand Narrative (April 10, 2015) https://questioningandskepticism.com/darwins-invisible-hand-narrative-new-paradigm/

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