Mar 19

Dominion

current trends in socializationDominion: the Power of man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy

by Matthew Scully

 

A self-described conservative, sometime writer for George W. Bush, Matthew Scully has written a beautiful book in defense of animals. Rife with blood-chilling examples of casual or systematic cruelty to animals humans use for food, fur, or for fun (hunting), the book is particularly hard on conservatives and their attitude to animals as so many economic units without any rights of their own. Really, very hard—as it should be. So hard, it made me wonder about how it went over with Mr. Scully’s colleagues, who I’m sure didn’t take kindly to his criticisms.

The book’s central argument seems to be that where alternatives exist, we should let the poor non-human creatures be, because they have a right to enjoy their lives just as we do, and because being cruel to animals is shitty and beneath us as moral beings.

I have to mention that this book is better written and reasoned than most, and is a pleasure to read. Dominion examines our treatment of animals we raise as food, animals we hunt, whaling, the question of animal consciousness, etc. Throughout, Scully is consistently reasonable and perceptive, willing to call bullshit on scientists hiding behind jargon to avoid admitting that animals are conscious and experience pain and pleasure much as we ourselves do. Or on apologists for hunting and whaling when they accuse “environmentalist nutcases” of sentimentality in defense of animals while defending hunting or whaling on patently sentimental grounds.

On the question of whether animals are conscious, Scully examines the arguments of theorists such as John S. Kennedy and Stephen Budiansky at length. Scully doesn’t say as much, but one gets the distinct impression these guys begrudge other animals any and all consideration. They seem to believe consciousness is the consequence of language and the ability to conceptualize things. As if without being able to reflect on something we experience, we can’t be conscious of it. It seems a perversion of science to say that we can’t definitively prove animals possess consciousness, therefore we must act as though they do not—unless I severely misunderstand the aims and nature of science. And lest we become confused about the terminology and confuse consciousness with meta-consciousness, I will remind the reader again that when these guys are denying that animals are conscious they are saying that animals do not experience pain in any meaningful way, and therefore don’t deserve the consideration we accord our own species when we avoid inflicting wanton suffering on each other.

One wonders what it is that makes Mr. Scully a conservative. I reckon there’s more kinds of conservative than one, but the word carries certain specific implications in America today. For Mr. Scully’s colleagues at the National Review to accept him as one of their own, one assumes that he must share at least some of these assumptions. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone being accepted as a conservative by other conservatives these days without agreeing with the idea that the less regulations are imposed on markets, the better. But throughout Dominion, Scully argues the opposite, at least in regard to animals:

Nothing in the natural world, (Tom Bethell) seems to be saying, is of value unless someone owns it. We can save the world’s elephants and tigers, but only by consigning them all to elephant and tiger farms, each creature in due course to be possessed and killed and thereby accorded value—a way of reasoning that reminds me of the businessman in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, who thinks that by counting up each star he assumes possession of it… (p.124)

Scully condemns the world Trade Organization for “reducing all moral problems to questions of economic advantage.”

Undoing decades of progress in more developed nations, the WTO treats animal welfare as an illegitimate question, a purely commercial consideration relevant only as it helps or hinders trade. In the global economy, even minimal consideration for animal suffering can be a competitive disadvantage.

And in his own mind and conscience—how does he reconcile his respect for life with his support, perhaps tacit, for a system that’s hellbent on destroying life wherever life is found? Or, when not outright murdering and torturing living things, as Scully freely admits, a system which by its purpose and design can’t do anything other than to channel the glorious multitude of different living creatures into just a few forms, selected solely for their usefulness as food or diversion for creature number one.

Because what, he thinks that capitalism has a place for wild things somewhere no one’s thought to look? Without twisting one’s logic, such a thing doesn’t exist. Capitalism has no place for intangibles like wildness, love, joy, community or personal growth. It reduces all social relations to the mercantile: is this profitable or not? If not, it makes no difference that the person/ activity/ place/ object in question offers profound fulfillment. These aren’t my opinions—this is what theorists and legislators of the capitalist system intend and say themselves, when they can get the ugly words through their teeth. These ideas are hateful to everyone, capitalists included, but they are not as hateful to them as money/power is desirable, apparently. So we get this foolery, where we try to ignore what we all know to be true.

There are compromises that seek to address the reductive, life-denying side of a capitalist social order with our basic need to live as anything other than wheels and cogs, slaves and masters. One such solution is the welfare state, a capitalist economy with restrictions placed upon the ravages and depredations of capital. But of course, this won’t do for hard-core capitalists and libertarians like those at the National Review.  The contemporary liberal democracy, the welfare state or “capitalism light”, is the program of the liberals of today, the Democratic party in the U.S. and the New Labor in Great Britain.

I’m not advocating for communism or any other alternative social organization here. I just want to be clear on the facts: the outcome of capitalism as we currently practice it is the disappearance of the variety of living beings, the impoverishment of life for all creatures, human and otherwise, and in the end, probably the death of the entire planet in every meaningful sense. A society which holds power and profit as its highest values can come to no other end.

Oct 27

Crisis!

the opioid crisis epidemic is gripping the nation!

 

The “opioid crisis” is gripping the nation. President Trump has announced that it is a national emergency requiring extraordinary measures or something. In 2015, 33000 people died from overdoses of opiate drugs.

The narrative of the opioid crisis epidemic goes like this:

“Doctors were always reluctant to prescribe opioid pain medications because they were aware of the risks of addiction. But the makers of OxyContin, the Sackler family, created a marketing campaign based on creating confusion between codeine, a relatively weak painkiller, and oxycodone, a relatively strong one. They also lobbied the FDA to make it seem like time-release pills are less addictive, paid doctors to give talks claiming pain is under-treated, and did other bad stuff. Doctors started to prescribe tons of pain meds, regulation of pill-mill doctors was lax, and tons of innocent people’s lives were ruined by addiction while the Sackler family lined their pockets with 14 billion dollars.”

But while the Slacker family are clearly shitheads, their behavior is impeccable under the logic of capitalism. The reason we have an “opioid epidemic” isn’t because of the unscrupulous behavior of a few people who wanted to get rich. As such, the way to “solve” this crisis isn’t to force the said family to subsidize addiction treatment centers. This narrative is a red herring in the fullest sense—a distraction from the truth, which is as always much less palatable to everyone involved, and harder to fix.

The truth is that when people get addicted, they are getting something from their drug of choice that is preferable, for the moment, to their regular, un-addicted existence. Relatively content people don’t usually look to escape their reality, they invest and participate in it, enjoy it and try to suss it out. The fact that so many of us are trying our damnest to escape our supposedly state of the art reality gives away the truth.

Our present way of life in 2017 is traumatic for many of us, for different reasons. Psychologically and emotionally, we aren’t built to live the way we do. The biggest problems for so many of us are loneliness, aimlessness, and disconnection from life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opiate drugs alleviate these precise feelings. Drug users find that opiates envelop them in a physical, psychological, and emotional warmth and security.

In highschool, I was taught about experiments where rats where given cocaine and heroin at the press of a button. The rats would then just keep pressing the button to get instant drugs until they starved to death. Turns out, things are not quite so black and white: in subsequent experiments the rats would be offered the option of returning to their rat brothers and cousins. Yeah, I bet you thought that they had that option the whole time, as I did! When they told us about this in highschool, we were led to assume these rats are the equivalents of regular, innocent people—normal in every way, spending their innocent days playing with other rats and munching on garbage and babies, or whatever it is rats do. Then one day, one of them spots a new object in the rat-house: a big shiny red button. The curious rat pushes the button, and its brain is flooded with dope. From that moment on, this rat is gonna ignore its rat friends and rat pleasures, stand in front of that button and press it until it keels over. Another one bites the dust—drugs are awful, bro.

But that’s not what happened at all. The rats were kept isolated in tiny cages, and when these miserable animals were given drugs, they took them. In experiments where the rats were kept with other rats in bigger cages, they didn’t. More than that, when the rats that were addicted to drugs in small isolation cages were returned to their groups, they would choose to go through withdrawal and do regular rat things rather than stay on drugs. Rats prefer doing regular rat things with their rat friends and relatives to getting opiates and cocaine on demand, even if already addicted.

People prefer doing regular people things with friends and relatives over becoming (and remaining) addicted to hard drugs as well. Count that as axiomatic.

What are these regular people things? Whatever individual things we like to do, we all need to have connection to others of our own kind and to ourselves. This means physical and emotional connection, and for at least some, intellectual connection. That may well be enough. Sometimes purpose and self-esteem are mentioned, but I’ve begun to think that these arise organically on their own from a meaningful relationship to our family and community.

When people are choosing to get high consistently and in large numbers, you can bet they are trapped in situations analogous to the rats in tiny isolation cages, physically or psychologically, or both. This being the case, you won’t have much success treating their addiction with methadone or suboxone and therapy. We use drugs because we are isolated and prevented from doing human things with humans, so obviously until our lives are such that we can do these things, we will be inclined to look for any ways to escape the shitty reality we are trapped in. When treatment is successful, it is always because in one way or another the addict is able to get these things back into their life. Otherwise, all you can do is substitute the mechanism by which they will try to escape their realities.

Good luck with that! If improving our lives was on anyone’s agenda, maybe these things would be considered and discussed. It’s not like I’m writing the theory of special relativity here, these things are well known to anyone with half an eye on their world. They are known to scientists who give dope to rats. They are certainly known to whoever is in charge of making sure we continue to work all day and buy shit we don’t need in our free time. Doesn’t look like we’ll be talking about it anytime soon.

Sep 02

Lessons in confidence and individualism with Conor McMoneyweather

you are what everybody says you are

 

On August 26, 2017, an aged Floyd Mayweather beat MMA lightweight champion Conor McGregor via TKO in round 10 (in a boxing match, need I say). Both fighters have their fans, and both are unlikable shitbags: one is a serial batterer of women, the other a bully and a dick.

There was little to suggest the universe needed the two of them to box each other, but box they did, and it was interesting, in ways. The fight itself, only slightly. The reactions of people– fans, journalists, other boxers and MMA fighters, etc—more so. Finally, there are things to be learned from the event itself, the fight game and its’ practitioners, and our societies’ embrace of such spectacles. Bread and circuses, as they say.

From round 4 on, Mayweather came at Mcgregor like he had no respect at all for his power or ability. The MMA “community” by and large seemed to think Conor did their sport proud, but that’s just wishful thinking and a lack of understanding of the other sport. Even I could tell that after the first round Floyd wasn’t taking his opponent seriously, loading up on his punches and trying to make a point instead of boxing as he would an equal. Conor was embarrassed by a 40 year old, much diminished fighter, perhaps 20 pounds lighter on fight day, who didn’t even spar in preparation for the fight.

In the past, much was made of McGregor’s visualization of his goals or whatever it is he does, as in the book The Secret. This outing clearly showed that no amount of visualizing will make up a gulf as wide as that between Mcgregor’s and Mayweather’s respective boxing skills. Did anyone think that all you had to do to succeed was visualize desired outcomes? Conor did not sit on his living room couch for the duration of his training camp deep in meditation, visualizing—he trained his ass off. But the visualization addresses one aspect of the ingredients necessary to win: confidence.

Both Conor and Floyd are positively brimming with confidence. I think it’s fair to say Mcgregor has more consciously incorporated confidence into his arsenal as a fighter, though Floyd surely has an equal amount. Their confidence comes from different sources (aside from the confidence they both get from the evidence their past bouts provide of their sporting excellence). Conor believes in the power of visualizing desired outcomes. Floyd believes in the “0” on the right side of his win/loss record. This alone allows him to claim “The Best Ever” status, although most boxing insiders place him nowhere near the truly great boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, or Muhammad Ali.

The concept of visualizing yourself succeeding, a la The Secret, is one way in which some have tried to take control of their confidence. The idea is to brainwash yourself into erasing all doubt from your mind. Having not read the book, I’m not sure whether the author emphasizes the point that this technique only works (to the extent that it works at all) in conjunction with rigorous training, or work, or effort towards the desired goal. I sort of doubt it, since doing so invites the question why one would need to practice self-hypnosis if one already did everything humanly possible to make one’s goals a reality.

This is a whole can of worms. The truth is, we are none of us anymore completely safe from self doubt because the society we live is in many ways a self-doubt inducing mechanism. Busting our confidence is what modern western society does best. I talk at length about why I think this to be the case elsewhere, but understanding how our society induces self-doubt is pretty straight-forward. Insecurity goes hand-in-hand with capitalism; confusion is the flip side of “democracy,” at least the kind we practice. In a capitalist society, one is never attractive, successful, or rich enough. In a democracy, one only has him or herself to blame for their miseries. Hypothetically, “the people” are the “highest power in the land,” a funny thing to think about while wasting one’s best years slaving at some job or stuck in traffic with all the other members of this awesomely powerful group.

Perhaps more importantly, capitalism operates by destroying human communities wherever they occur.

Closely-knit families and communities are the only true source of confidence.

I know, this is a shocking reversal of that tired truism: Believe in yourself! Pay no mind to what others think of you, you’ve only got to please yourself! These sayings are the western equivalent of the Soviet “All power to the workers!” and “Proletarians of all nations, unite!” You didn’t think the we have propaganda in the free world? Tsk tsk. More, by far, than the commies ever did– it’s just not as gaudy.

So, the idea that you are to be complete unto yourself is the opposite of how humans actually work. We call someone who takes their cues for what is appropriate behavior solely from themselves a sociopath or a nut; it is no secret that mental illness and sociopathy are on a steep rise in America of late. We get not only much of our confidence from our communities and kin, but our very identities and meaning in general. Without others, we have no frame of reference for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

Capitalism takes over these functions from our communities and kin once they have been broken up and destroyed. The difference is, our families and friends care about us and want to see us succeed, while capitalism is just trying to sell us things. Not to mention, being a part of a human community is fulfilling; being a part of a capitalist society is inherently demoralizing since your only role is that of consumer.

How does Floyd Mayweather know who he is? How does anybody know who he or she is?

I’m not Floyd’s biographer, so please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong. I also don’t know what Floyd is like in private, save for the incidents that became widely known because they involved beating women and such things—and just to be clear, I am not saying that women-beating is somehow a cultural trait. But the person Floyd Mayweather is, as a whole, is a product of the specific cultural, geographic, socio-economic, etc. milieu that he was born and raised in. Floyd Mayweather wasn’t born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants. If he was, he might be a Vietnamese boxer with all attendant details that involves: for one, he probably wouldn’t sport the infamous “Money” persona everyone loves to hate, and he certainly wouldn’t be a worldwide celebrity. The persona Floyd possesses today is the product of specific cultural, etc. conditions. This much is obvious, but somehow no one ever squares this banal truth with the bullshit self-affirmation mantras we all so casually proffer.

Conversely, if Floyd was really, exclusively self-directed—if anyone was really self-directed—taking his cues for who to be, what to believe, how to behave, from no one but himself, he would not possess any culturally specific traits, the signifiers by which we recognize and understand one another. Such a thing is an impossibility—we have no other way to be, to understand ourselves, or to present ourselves to others, except through what we pick up from the people around us. We re-arrange the elements given to us to make them uniquely our own, but not all that much. When we’re done customizing our “unique” identities, they end up pretty much just like everyone else’s in our peer group. And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it is an essential thing: it is how each one of us knows who to be, what to do, what to believe. It is also essential to the function of society as a whole.

We all tend to exaggerate the extent to which we are unique individuals, just as we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our successes are of our own making while our failures are the results of fate. These are not altogether separate tendencies—it seems to me a similar mechanism is at work in both. This self-delusion, too, is essential for individual and social well-being.

Camus describes this paradox best in the story of Sisyphus. For fighting the gods, Sisyphus’ punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a mountain side, only to see it roll back down again when he reached the top, over and over, forever. But Camus thinks that we must imagine that Sisyphus is happy in his meaningless, tedious task. By accepting responsibility for his fate, Sisyphus is as free as anyone living out their eternity in leisure and comfort. The act of taking responsibility for our own being allows each of us to live as though we have free will, when in fact we (mostly) do not.

For our present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have free will or not. Each of us is compelled to go through life as though we are in control, when in reality all but the most mundane choices are already made for us. Who we are, what culture we are born into, what our demeanor and external attributes are (and therefore, to a large extent, how we are going to be perceived by others), whether we are to spend our lives working or playing–the most important things are decided for us.

Existentialists believed that the universe is cold and uncaring, devoid of all meaning. This means that there is no logical reason good things should happen to good people and vice versa; it certainly also means no amount of visualizing is going to induce the ether to help you reach your goals.   In plain English, the universe doesn’t give a shit about you.

The world being indifferent, the highest virtue for existentialists is “authenticity,” which is taking responsibility for your fate even though we are to live out our short lives in an uncaring, meaningless world. But most of us don’t fight against the meaninglessness of the universe as Kierkegaard did. Some people go through an intense searching phase in adolescence, and most probably don’t even experience that.

I believe this is because most people don’t look for meaning in an abstract sense.  For the vast majority of us, the meaning of life is clear: it is to thrive as an individual living among his or her group. What greater challenges does one need? This is plenty hard enough, but at the same time, it is not unattainable. Finally, this is a kind of meaning that everyone naturally understands. The quest for success in the eyes of our peers is the most basic narrative there is.

So, the idea that we are all individuals and should look no further than ourselves for self-affirmation is quite contradictory to our basic instincts. We get it, this isn’t a new idea; but the relentlessness with which it is currently hammered into everyone’s head is. It is perhaps inevitable, for any number of reasons. It is in line with our normal tendency to imagine ourselves as more in control of our lives than we actually are. It is also essential to the functioning of modern capitalism, since lonely “individuals” are infinitely better workers and consumers than people who are focused on their communities.

But it’s impossible for us not to pay attention to what other people think—of us, of themselves, of everything, because that’s basically what being human is about. We are social animals first and foremost. Believing we are mostly self-guided is just as delusional as it is natural, though most people seem to have no problem doing so while continuing to check with everyone else for what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. Still, there’s a staggering number of lonely people today, and I’m pretty sure this heavy emphasis on self-affirmation is part of the reason why.

It’s no solution to suggest that we need to give up our belief that we are best off without others’ opinions. We need to believe we are in control, so we can face life as sentient creatures. And we need to actually be almost entirely the product of social consensus, because we are social to a fault and lose our human identities if cut off even briefly from our conspecifics—as the cases of “wild” children attest. But as Camus’ story suggests, we can still be happy with this arrangement. So long as the balance isn’t thrown too far off.

Apr 14

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!

larger resinAgainst His-Story, Against Leviathan!

Fredy Perlman

Black & Red 1983

Don’t be misled by the poetic and mythologizing tone with which Fredy Perlman renders his epic Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! This is an exhaustively researched book. It is also profoundly philosophical, asking questions and suggesting answers you won’t find anywhere else. The fact that it is beautifully written in an accessible manner is highly appropriate to its message, as you will see below. The book’s style is very much the opposite of dry scientific writing. I think if readers have difficulty with this book apart from getting a hold of it (it’s distributed mostly through its publisher, Black & Red), it is because there is virtually no precedent for the combination of style, depth, and content of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! to this day. There are few works of any kind on the subject, but what few there are mostly take a (pseudo) scientific or essay approach. To my knowledge no one tackles the question of civilization with the background in philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, ethnography, Marxism, political science, etc. that Fredy does. The depth of this background knowledge may not be immediately obvious to the reader in part because of the pointedly un-scientific tone used throughout, but you could (and should, as I would argue) use Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! as an introductory text to a world history class.

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is the history of the world from the perspective of human beings and their communities. It may come as a surprise to some of you that this is very much the opposite of every other history book in existence, that all history books prior to this one were written as histories of institutions and the men (almost exclusively men) who supposedly set them in motion. The difference between these approaches is huge. On the one hand, we are looking at human beings and their concerns: life, freedom, joy, family, community. On the other hand we are concerned with machines and abstractions, undying entities which retool all existence in their image and relate to life only insofar as they need living beings to operate their cogs and levers because they are inanimate themselves.

Fredy Perlman asks the questions which end polite conversations and cause the questioner to be marked a pariah: if civilization is as wonderful as we are told, why did it have to be imposed on each new group of people at gunpoint? Shouldn’t its merits be obvious, the material standard of living and so forth? Why did the colonizers of the Americas complain that they can’t keep their citizens from running off to join the “savage” tribes, whereas the natives themselves could only be coerced to adopt “civilized” life, and would still revert to “savagery” given half a chance? What is it about the civilized that enabled them to conquer the world? What is it that makes them want to? And where did civilization come from in the first place?

Why against civilization? Why not against capitalists, communists, fascists, Illuminati, Masons, Republicans, Americans, colonialists, warmongers, or just plain assholes? Why not against greed or hubris? There have been many attempts to correct the injustices inherent in all civilized societies. Many people thought that if only their ideology could be given free reign everything would be fine. Every attempt so far failed; none have succeeded in returning to mankind a standard of living enjoyed by our hunter and gatherer ancestors, materially, and more importantly spiritually and psychologically. Studying history reveals that some things are not as new as they appear to us, cut off by our own literacy and technology in time. Consider the following story:

“The leader of a certain city is disturbed by the state of his people. He sees that society is two-tiered, the few rich and the many poor, and that the poor are in dire straits and have little hope for improvement. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, a time when things weren’t this way, when everyone had a fighting chance to live happily. He institutes reforms intended to fix the injustices. He decrees that “the youth was not required to work in the (rich man’s fields); the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.” If a rich man wanted the healthy donkey of his servant, he had to pay the servant’s asking price in silver, and if the servant refused to sell, he couldn’t coerce him. And so on.

The reforms make the poor of his city happy, but seriously piss off the rich. The upper classes conspire to overthrow the reformer and help a ruler more sympathetic to their interests replace him.”

These events took place in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2300 BC. They are recorded in a cuneiform script on a clay tablet. It is a completely modern story. In fact, Urukagina, the reforming ruler of Lagash, speaks of the injustices in his city as already ancient, though he knows they’re wrong. Lugalzagisi, the champion of the rich installed in his place, knows as well as any modern politician where his bread and butter lies. The lesson seems to be that those in possession of wealth and power will tenaciously cling to it. The Sumerians are not yet concerned with dressing up the injustices in their midst with ideologies like “trickle down economics.” But the reformers among them err in the same way as reformers will err until the present day: they assume that tinkering with the relative distribution of power and wealth is enough. Perhaps they themselves are heavily invested in the inequality, or maybe they have already forgotten what life outside of the Leviathan looks like. Or they may remember perfectly well what it is they have traded for civilization, but view the loss as already irremediable.

By the time of Urukagina, Sumerians were the inheritors of over 3000 years of increasing social stratification, large scale public works, strongmen, wars, and rapacious commerce. The first irrigation canals in the Near East were created in 6000 BC. Jericho in near-by Levant had 12 foot high walls around 8300 BC. Their world was cosmopolitan: merchants traveled ancient trade routes as far as the Indus Valley to the southeast, the Pontic Steppe (present day eastern Ukraine and southern Russia) to the northeast, Anatolia (Turkey) to the northwest, Egypt and Ethiopia to the southwest. Sumer would not have struck people from our time as incomprehensible. The concerns of a Sumerian were pretty much identical to those of a modern person: sex, stuff, status, work, rest. God(s). But both Sumer and 21st century life would be completely inconceivable to free human beings, those living outside of civilization.

During the period between the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry around 10000 BC and the beginning of recorded history in around 2500 BC, mankind went through the greatest change it ever has and possibly ever will. For those who went through it, it is no exaggeration to say this was a change from being free human beings to inmates of a compulsory labor camp. For those able to temporarily escape the monster’s jaws through flight, life was also permanently changed for the worse. They would have to continue running with every advance of this or that Leviathan, this or that civilization, until nowhere remained to run and just one Leviathan is spread over the whole world. When Francis Fukuyama will announce its final victory in 1989, he will know it as democracy or capitalism.

The few handfuls of humans who still live in what we call a “state of nature” deep in the Amazon or Congo rainforests do so today only by the grace and generosity of the civilized. A much greater number exist in a semi-free state on the margins of society, wherever they can, overlooked for the time being. These groups span the gamut from greater to lesser amounts of freedom, but none of them can be completely free because none have the security necessary to experience complete freedom. For the rest of us, the very meaning of the word freedom is inverted.

Insist that “freedom” and “the state of nature” are synonyms, and the cadavers will try to bite you. The tame, the domesticated, try to monopolize the word freedom; they’d like to apply it to their own condition. They apply the word “wild” to the free. But it is another public secret that the tame, the domesticated, occasionally become wild but are never free so long as they remain in their pens. p.7

Instead of being free to develop our humanity to its fullest potential, a process heavily intertwined with the lore and traditions of our communities, we are “free” to create a personal identity based on the kinds of objects and experiences we can afford, largely in seclusion. Naturally, this modern kind of freedom leads to suffering and confusion.

The state of nature is a community of freedoms.

Such was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations.

Modern anthropologists who carry Gulag in their brains reduce such human communities to the motions that look most like work, and give the name Gatherers to people who pick and sometimes store their favorite foods. A bank clerk would call such communities Savings Banks!

The zeks on a coffee plantation in Guatemala are Gatherers, and the anthropologist is a Savings Bank. Their free ancestors had more important things to do. pp.7-8

So what is it we the civilized are missing?

Where does one start? The short answer is, everything.

Even during the coldest winter days, when the branches of evergreens sagged from their weight of snow, the human child was born into a very warm context. The warmth did not come from the walls of the bark lodge, which failed to block all draughts, nor from the fire on the floor, but from the radiant people welcoming the newcomer.

The child was expected; she was already an important personage; her arrival completed the community. Soon after her birth, she was ceremonially named, not arbitrarily but very carefully. The Totem, namely the community of the newcomer’s kin, possessed a number of names, as the sky possesses a number of stars, and the community was not quite whole, was in fact uneasy, if the names were not carried by living individuals. Everyone attended the naming ceremony because all were enhanced by the newly-named. The names did not run out. The Potawatomi were not committed to what we will know as Population Growth, and it is said that they did not experience the phenomenon.

The newcomer provided a missing rhythm. The name expressed the community’s embrace of the missing rhythm and also some expectations about the music that might be heard.

But the specific rhythm of the newly-named could be foretold no more than the final shape of a tree can be foretold from a seedling. The child was placed in no school to stunt her growth to the expected size and shape. On the contrary, the girl-child as well as her newborn brother were left free to emulate, or ignore, uncles and aunts, cousins among the animals, everyone and everything under the Sun, not excluding the Sun.

The grownups watched, not to close doors, but to open doors, to let the children wander where they would unharmed.

By the time the Potawatomi children were old enough to have expectations of their own, they were prepared to be their own guides. Dream lodges were set up in the forest, one for the girl, another for her brother. The youngsters fasted until a Totem spirit visited them. The spirit usually appeared in the form of an animal, and was usually not the same spirit whose name the child wore. The spirit promised to guide the child along a specific path, namely to give the child an individual rhythm, and the spirit offered the child certain powers with which to achieve the rhythm, powers with which to light the path.

Henceforth the children were on their own, bound neither by laws nor by the community’s expectations. Their own dream spirit helped them decide whether or not to live up to the ancestor whose name they carried. If they decided not to, they would be renamed after the first act that revealed the children were determined to follow distinct paths.

The boy, carrying his guide’s offerings in a beautifully adorned bag, and knowing that he could call on his guide simply by fasting, set out on his own to face a cosmos whose grandeur and mystery will be inaccessible to our imaginations. We will know something of his feats as a hunter or a warrior, as a long-distance walker, as a lover. We will know less of the depth of his friendships with kinsmen or strangers, and almost nothing of his friendships with wolves and bears whose tracks he followed, whose signals he tried to grasp, whose universe he tried to understand. And we will know nothing at all of his fasts on mountain tops or alongside green mirror-like tree-surrounded lakes, of the journeys he undertook with his guide across and through the water to the place of life’s origin, of his flights on the guide’s wings to the sunset land where his ancestors gathered.

We will know that he eventually returned to his Totem with meat and with numerous stories, and that he married his beloved’s sister because his beloved had in the meantime married a youth who had not stayed away for so long. We will know that he spoke of his exploits and his voyages to his children and also to his sister’s children, the nephew and niece whose dream lodges he built in the forest.

We will think that his strength left him when he gave up warring as well as hunting, when he became a peacemaker, storyteller and lone wanderer.

We will not know that he revisited a mountain top he had known in his youth, fasted until his guide came for him, flew to the land beyond the sunset, joined his beloved, he as youthful as on his first trip, she as beautiful as on the day he first saw her, and traveled with her alongside him across and through water to the place of Life’s beginnings.

If we knew all this, we wouldn’t ask why the man resisted encasing himself in our linear, visionless Order. Isn’t it our longing that expresses itself in a story about a European called Faust who turns his back on respectability, on the esteem of his colleagues, on law as well as religion, so as to have access to a personal guide and personal powers available to every Potawatomi?

The man’s older sister, in the meantime, created a music that will sound less ‘romantic’ to our ears. She too followed her own dream, but she found it possible to fulfill her own guide’s expectations as well as the community’s. She lived up to the Totem ancestor whose name she proudly continued to carry. She threw herself into the Totem’s activities, perhaps reacting against her lonesome brother; perhaps she, too, thought him excessively ‘romantic’.

Like her name-ancestor, she turned bark of birch trees into canoes and winter lodges and tree-sugar baskets; she turned the skins of animals into cloaks, skirts, moccasins and medicine bags. Her own spirit inspired the colorful quilled symbolism with which she finished everything she made.

Like her ancestor, she was one of the preparers of the ceremonial welcoming of spring’s new shoots, and after her marriage she was also a preparer of the ceremonial expulsion of Wiske, but the words she sang and the steps she danced were inspired by her own spirit.

Like her ancestor, she gathered herbs and became familiar with their general uses, but when her son was attacked by something he ate, she had to learn from her own spirit how to combine and administer the herbs while singing him back to health.

Her son as well as her daughter later took after her lonesome younger brother, but she was neither disappointed nor surprised; she knew that the children were following their own dreams, as she herself had.

Her dream had guided her to the center of the festivals and ceremonies, to the village council and the medicine lodge. Nothing her kin did or knew was alien to her.

Yet some of us will pretend to be honest when we ask why she was so vigorous in expelling Wiske from the ceremonial circle, why she would have been repelled by the prospect of becoming a housewife in a Civilized household, even the Archon’s.

Can we not recognize that in the fullness of development of universal human capacities she exposes the immiseration of the shamefully stunted products of Civilization? Can we not see that this Potawatomi matron who excels as Architect, Shoemaker, Shipbuilder, Furrier, Dramatist, Painter, Composer, Dancer, Druggist and Doctor already surpasses the many-sided Genius, the notoriously flexible Renaissance Man?

Shouldn’t the question be inverted? Shouldn’t we ask why we are fascinated by a Da Vinci, instead of asking why she is repelled? Is it because Da Vinci dangles from Leviathan’s neck like a cowbell, whereas she stands on ordinary dirt?

Why does a Da Vinci gleam for us among the beast’s innumerable cowbells? Is it because, after all the stunting and spirit-breaking that makes us Civilized, we still want to be what she was, but can no longer become even what he was, can only applaud what Leviathan becomes instead of us? pp.242-245

I’m sure I don’t have to emphasize the fact that it is extremely unusual to condemn civilization, wholesale or even in part. The idea that civilization is a good thing is, to most people, so true it is self evident and needs no proof. For most people born and raised inside of Leviathan, with no notion that there even is an outside, questioning civilization is among the hardest mental exertions. But as Fredy Perlman shows in this book, this wasn’t always the case. Once it came into being, civilization conquered or co-opted every group of people it came across, but it took a long time and the “progress” was far from uniform. From the very start, humans have resisted the supposed bounty of civilized life whenever they had the chance.

Much of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is concerned with tracing this history of resistance to civilization. People did not willingly trade their freedoms in the state of nature for the garb of a civilized worker and consumer. Such conversions mostly only take place once no other alternatives exist. The focal point of the resistance has shifted from those on the exterior of Leviathans in the beginning to those already inside it more recently, as less and less yet un-civilized space remained. It seems like the mountains are always the place where resistance is fiercest, from the first barbarians who descended on Uruk from the Zagros mountains to the unconquerable Pashtuns or Kurds of today.

The middle sections of the book may not hold the attention of people without some interest in history. It’s hard to keep track of the different groups being discussed—the Hittites? The Mittani?—but careful reading all the way through is extremely rewarding to even a casual student of history like myself for the insights Fredy offers about different periods and civilizations. Like his observations that the Ancient Greeks talked about everything but the olives and wine which made their empire function, and became aesthetes so they could maintain the illusion. Even for those lacking any knowledge of history, the first portion of the book is great as a stand-alone essay on civilization and its origins, and the section about the Potawatomi later in the book is a beautiful description of what life was like without civilization. Both are pure poetry.

In the past, the average person was “convinced” to become civilized at the point of a sword. Today, we are persuaded that we are the beneficiaries of the best, most advanced and satisfying way of living ever through more advanced mechanisms, but perhaps the biggest factor in favor of civilization these days is the fact that it has swallowed all alternatives to itself. Still, a staggering amount of work goes into convincing a completely captive audience that they should want the thing that is supposedly so wonderful it is self-evident.

It is no exaggeration to say the way we think about almost anything is channeled through the lens of our pro-civilization ideology. I first read Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! perhaps fifteen years ago, and may have been introduced to anti-civilization thought maybe a few years before that. In the years since, I’ve done more research on history, politics, economics, etc. and the way they alternately shed light on or obscure facts about our lives. I’m no stranger to these ideas, and yet re-reading Against His-Story this last time, I discovered that I still have trouble not being impressed by the grandeur of imperial Rome, the sublime aesthetics of the ancient Greeks, the sheer terror of Scythian or Mongol cavalry. A part of me still thinks of these as “Us,” when I know full well that this is the point of the propaganda; by identifying with these things I am being duped into trading experiencing my own visions for merely consuming the carefully calibrated visions of Leviathan.

A big reason it’s so hard to not be duped by the glitter and thrill of Leviathanic ideas and spectacles, even when you know full well they are no good, is that most of us have nothing better, know of nothing better. When we accidentally stumble on something that makes our hearts sing, we misidentify what it is we are experiencing because we have no frame of reference with which to understand it. Such is, to use one example, group life in the army. I’ve heard many soldiers express how fulfilling it is to be a part of a group of people who support each other as they work towards achieving a common goal. Whatever their feelings for the institution of the military,  many former soldiers miss this aspect of serving their country. Few realize that the fulfillment they experienced there is the same one that all humans used to share as a birthright.

We are all raised deep inside of Leviathans. Even village life is generations in the past for most of us. Most people don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the difference between life inside of Leviathan and without. Some have tried to describe the difference nevertheless, to create the vocabulary to do so from scratch or to reclaim words for this purpose from their Leviathanic usage. Those who did discovered just how hard it is to kick against the pricks.

There is very little reason to think that, things being what they are, a more critical approach to civilization is going to arise on a large scale anytime soon. I’m sorry for not having a more optimistic outlook. I’ve found that knowledge of these ideas is neither a prerequisite nor a predictor of human decency. A better predictor, I think, is the extent to which someone’s upbringing and life resembles that of a free human being. It is unfortunately extremely hard to unlearn the worldview we are raised with, and if we are taught that other people are objects and tools to manipulate, that’s pretty much how we’re gonna treat them. I’m not saying that people don’t change, they do. But there’s probably a pretty small limit to how much someone can change (sorry, born-again people; if you manipulated people as a godless drunk, you’re probably gonna manipulate them as a sober evangelical, too).

Without a prompt re-evaluation of our beliefs and priorities, we are facing an impending disaster on a global scale. It’s bizarre to live in a country where reality has been completely discarded in favor of a fantastical narrative of heathen enemies at the gate and god-given rights to plunder and profit from everything in sight. This story may have been current for some nation somewhere 3000 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than self-serving even then. Now, when we desperately need to acknowledge our unique predicament as a potential scourge of all creation, the bullshit issuing from the loudest available channels is deafening and disorienting, which is likely exactly the effect it is supposed to have.

Fredy Perlman was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1934, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1945. He apparently intended to be a teacher and an intellectual, but working at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s turned out to be more intellectually and ethically compromising than he could handle. For the rest of his relatively short life, Fredy lived a materially modest life, unattached to any institution that could influence or support his work. He spent a number of years in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, writing a doctoral dissertation in Economics for the University of Belgrade. He travelled to Paris in May of 1968 on the last train before the general strike stopped all transportation. Returning to Detroit, he organized and maintained a cooperative printshop used by different radical groups for the remainder of the 70s. Throughout, he never stopped learning and writing. A wonderful account of his life, Having Little Being Much, was written by his lifelong partner Lorraine, who also collaborated with Fredy on many works and translations.

Dec 15

Current Trends in Socialization

painting of a giant phallus running over pedestrians by dmitry myaskovsky

How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.

In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.

Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.

People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.

For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.

For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.

Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.

The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.

Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.

What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.

Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.

Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.

May 21

Happy People

alienation is not a family value
Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism, Julia Bronstein, Spiegel Online, July 3, 2009. Translated by Christopher Sultan.

“The Continuum Concept,” Jean Liedloff, Perseus Books, 1975

A majority of Eastern Germans feel that life was better under communism, according to a 2009 poll. The Der Spiegel article is incredulous at the results, and tries hard to paint the poll’s respondents as deluded. “What about the Stasi?” asks Julia Bronstein, the article’s writer. What about the shooting of people trying to escape across the Wall by border guards? The answer of one man interviewed for the article:

“As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today… People lie and cheat everywhere today, and today’s injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of.”

God bless the Germans. The article’s writer, unable to step outside of the official ideology, calls this the “whitewashing” of memories of the dictatorship. East Germans defend the GDR “as if reproaching the state meant calling their own past into question,” a political scientist interviewed for the article insists. “Many eastern Germans perceive all criticism of the system as a personal attack.” They are lying through their teeth because they are insecure, see. Ironically, the ideology of liberal democracy ought to see the opinion of the majority as legitimate, but as Noam Chomsky has never tired of repeating, it’s never been about that. The real issue is the supremacy of capitalist society and liberal democracy over all alternative ways of life, and if 99% of the people thought otherwise, as they sometimes do, they would be in the wrong.

The article sounds like a badly made propaganda film at times as it tries to paint the majority of the people of eastern Germany as dupes or worse. Clearly, since democracy and capitalism are by definition good, and they call modern Germany such things as a “slave state” and a “dictatorship of capital,” they are sick in the soft parts (“I am afraid that a majority of eastern Germans do not identify with the current sociopolitical system,” laments the political scientist). Tisk tisk.

Let’s try to answer some of the questions which leave the journalists and the academics baffled by carefully reading the article as written, leaving the ideological blinders off for the time being. Here is another interviewee, a man named Schön who has become very rich since the reunification.

“In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together,” he says. What he misses today is “that feeling of companionship and solidarity.” The economy of scarcity (GDR had a GDP of $9800 in 1984, $21,000 in 2008 dollars), complete with barter transactions, was “more like a hobby… As far as I’m concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today.”

Elsewhere, the sentiment is expressed that modern Germany is a soulless capitalist hell. The respondents are saying that they may have gained materially, but nevertheless lost something intangible in the process: a feeling and a way of being part of a community. “I’m better off today than I was before, but I’m not more satisfied.” Of course, many people are neither better off nor more satisfied. We don’t know how many because capitalist society, lacking an overt mandate to care for those who fall through the economic cracks, doesn’t bother to find out how many such unfortunates exist and seems to go so far as to purposely distort the numbers, as is the case with the U.S. unemployment rate.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I am defending state socialism. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Having lived for ten years in the U.S.S.R., I have no illusions about what it is like, nor any need to defend the system. What I’m concerned with is human happiness. Clearly, for people under late capitalist societies life is not good (it goes without saying that it’s not good for the species we drive extinct, the animals we keep in industrial feed lots, the planet which provides for us all, etc). The usual way to justify this unfortunate fact is to compare life under capitalism to other social systems, but this is a faulty comparison.

To say that what we have under capitalism is the best we can do is to make a number of assumptions about the nature of humans that are insupportable, assumptions like “all men are greedy” and “people are too stupid to be trusted with direct democracy” and such, not to mention the more basic assumptions regarding the role of mankind, vis a vis other life, the planet, and the universe. I’ve dealt elsewhere with some of these assumptions. Suffice it to say that people are by and large what they believe is appropriate under the circumstances, greedy in a greedy society, selfless in a selfless one. Yes, all men want the same things, to love and be loved, above all, to thrive, etc., but there is nothing in human nature that forces us to enslave fellow men or scratch and claw our way into a position of hegemony no matter who or what stands in the way: this is the life we live under late capitalism, state socialism, etc., and see how far it’s gotten us.

Secondly, the comparison between liberal democracies and often dictatorial third world or second world societies is faulty because the two are opposite sides of a coin, each impossible without the existence of the other. If there weren’t free trade zones in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, etc., the semi-starved semi-slaves who populate the sweatshops and maciladoras would have to exist somewhere else, namely, inside the “developed” countries themselves where they could, god forbid, be seen, and questions would be raised. It’s not as easy to justify keeping an American, a German, or an Englishman in slavery conditions, lacking in rights and completely disposable, but there is no way to maintain the high level of return on investment our markets are used to without slave labor. The high return on investment is written into the architecture of the civilizations we’ve created around the globe, a condition as basic as gravity: everything is built around maintaining continued growth.

There is another reason one might prefer life in a dictatorship. In “Manufacturing Consent,” the documentary, Noam Chomsky says that “in a totalitarian state, it doesn’t matter what people think, because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head with which you can control what they do. But when the state loses the bludgeon, when you can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem: it may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule. And therefore you have to control what people think.”

Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without telling the rest of us about their discovery, little by little transformed the world into a shape hostile to communitarianism. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. Don’t take my word for it, this is something the original capitalists were well aware of and discussed among themselves in earnest. The history of this process is described in scores of books such as E.P. Thompson’s classic “The Making of the English Working Class.” The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on.

You really have to isolate a person and destroy their life before the little pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is something they find appealing. And even then, as advertisers well know, whatever it is they are buying, the consumer is forever trying to purchase love and belonging with their hard-earned dollars, regardless of what you’ve been told about the individualism of “generation Pepsi.” The most mundane day following your own whims in your native village, among your kin, is preferable to working a highly compensated nine to five job and taking your sulking wife and your selfish, bratty kids out afterwards. Even drugs, unlimited amounts of heroin and cocaine, the supposed straight pathway to the pleasure receptors of the brain, are experimentally proven to appeal to animals only if they are kept isolated. Given the choice to continuously press a button that releases IV dope into their bloodstream, or doing the regular things animals do with their kind, the animals invariably choose to be drug-free. Think about that, think about what that means for all the fucked-up drug addicts we have in our society: given half a chance to live dignified, productive lives among their own kind, they would leave the drugs! For whose benefit are we spending billions of dollars fighting the war on drugs and billions more importing drugs into the U.S. from places we spent yet billions more destabilizing so that they can grow the drugs, since it is so clearly not for the benefit of the drug users?

***

Today, the ideological battle continues. Globalization is, according to its promoters, turning impoverished peasants into happy middle class consumers the world over. Yes, the workers assembling our crap in China are paid pennies, the ideologues acknowledge, but the reason they accept such wages is because they stand to make nothing back at the farm, and eventually, little by little, they are going to swing themselves up, bootstraps and all, into the ranks of the middle class. Unfortunately, this is sheer propaganda.

The truth is somewhat more complicated, and as such, less easily packaged into a soundbite for TV. The process of making peasants into wage-slaves begins with overpopulation, which has its own nefarious dynamics. (Normally, the food supply remains evenly matched to the population, but in our case, petroleum-based agriculture has allowed an unprecedented explosion in the amount of food we are able to grow.) The next stage is making it impossible for people to make a living back on the farm, forcing their children to look for work in the cities. There, they will take work at wages offered, the alternative being starvation. The fact that people somehow manage to survive and sometimes even send a family member to the U.S. doesn’t mean that anyone anywhere is going to become middle class. This is simply not something capitalism does, the sole thing capitalism is concerned with is maximizing profits for the capitalist. There is no disagreement about this fact, as there is no disagreement that there is no room for altruism in capitalism. Instead, the ideologues claim that everyone will somehow benefit by selling and buying each other’s crap, and those who fail to benefit are just lazy or stupid and deserve to die.

There is only one instance in which a sizable middle class was born out of the working class, and that was in post WWII U.S.A. and Europe. This was the result of social policies such as a heavily progressive tax rate, the government taking responsibility for creating full employment, social security and unemployment benefits, and many others. As the U.S. has shifted away from these policies, the results are plain to see: the middle class has been living off of the savings of the previous generation and credit, social investment has plummeted, and the only profit being made is by the wealthy, while the rest of the country is in a holding pattern at best. If you’re inclined to be more cynical, the argument that the only reason these progressive policies were put in place during the great depression was because the country was on the brink of a revolution has a lot to recommend it. Further more, someone somewhere has to buy all the crap being manufactured, although it is starting to appear that the richest 1% may be capable of doing all the consuming for the rest of us. Maybe the future of America will look like Brunei, where the entire country sells goods and services to the royal family.

The difference between the village and the city is, above all, the difference between people who live in the supportive embrace of a community, and those who live alone.

The price of exporting the brutality inherent in the system we live under is felt by the citizens of the first world in ailments of the mind and soul. I suppose this is preferable to the outright torture experienced by the citizens of the third world, and lets not imagine they are entirely immune to psychological assault either. But by and large, their souls are healthier because they all know who they are: the victims of a brutal, unjust, and exploitative system, and they have one another for support as they struggle against their circumstances. We in the first world can’t count on the support of anyone, and, since no one wants to admit to the identity of the beneficiary of an apartheid system, we have a psyche rent in two by knowledge we can’t dare process, and no positive identity to speak of. This phenomenon was brilliantly analyzed by James Baldwin as it applied to the minds of whites in segregated America, but it applies equally well to any situation where an unequal society exists.

Unfortunately, the mental problems experienced by the well-fed citizens of the first world are often as debilitating as any physical ailment. When one speaks of mental pathology, images of schizophrenia and psychosis may come to mind. But it need not be a full blown psychotic breakdown to destroy a person’s life. What does it mean to “lead a life of quiet desperation?” Why are so many Americans on drugs, legal and otherwise, or alcoholics, or suffering from depression? Where are the happy people, what are they like, what do they do with their time?

***

Jean Liedloff’s book “The Continuum Concept” offers just that: an example of contented and functional human beings. It offers much more, as well. The author refers to her time spent with Indians living in the Venezuelan rainforest as “unlearning,” principally because the life of the people she found herself among was so clearly superior in every way to what she’s known. They didn’t have a concept for “work,” using a corruption of the Spanish “trabajar” when they had to communicate what the westerners spent their time doing, abhorred coercion of any kind, even in regards to their children, and didn’t seem to experience unhappiness. Here is an illustrative story from early in the book:

…Cesar had been “adopted” by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write, and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.
“Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?” Mundo asked.
“I was brought up by Jose Grande,” said Cesar, according to the story.
“Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,” said Mundo.
Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.
For five years Cesar lived with Pepe’s family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown on Pepe’s plantation. Cesar was delighted to find Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.
Cesar’s wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his sons, who always liked to fish and who supplied his family as generously as their own.
Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.
Cesar, after five years’ assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project ans was free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.
Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. “He wanted to make a garden of his own”–Pepe laughed–”but he didn’t know it himself!” Pepe though it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work.

“The Continuum Concept” is an unaccountably obscure book, an injustice which I hope will be remedied. Jean Liedloff is, I believe, unaware or uninterested in the details of ideology and politics discussed above, but her book is a perfect and necessary part of any attempt to understand why our world has become as bleak as it has, and what might be done about it, if anything. While “The Continuum Concept” is in large part about child rearing, it is far from a parenting manual. Simply, the author happened to observe what life is like for people who are mostly untouched by centuries of western learning, living in small groups composed of a number of extended families as we all used to do until we adopted agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest.

Among the book’s points is that we in the west have done ourselves a disservice by denying our instinctive know-how as far as child-rearing is concerned. We swaddle babies from the minute they are born, tell ourselves that their cries are OK to ignore, and set up a lifelong battle of wills between ourselves and our children when all they really want to do is follow us around and do right by us. J.L. was struck by the lack of conflict, intergenerational or otherwise, between the Indians, by the way the children never seemed to cry, by the lack of parenting done among these people:

When he goes about on hands and knees, a baby can travel at a fair speed. Among the Yequana, I watched uneasily as one creeper rushed up and stopped at the edge of a pit five feet deep that had been dug for mud to make walls. In his progress about the compound, he did this several times a day. With the inattentiveness of an animal grazing at the edge of a cliff, he would tumble to a sitting position, as often as not facing away from the pit. Occupied with a stick or stone or his fingers or toes, he played and rolled about in every direction, seemingly heedless of the pit, until one realized he landed everywhere but the danger zone. The non-intellect-directed mechanisms of self-preservation worked unfailingly, and, being so precise in their calculations, functioned equally well at any distance from the pit, starting from the very edge. Unattended, or, more often, at the periphery of attention of a group of children playing with the same lack of respect for the pit, he took charge of his own relationships to all the surrounding possibilities.

Perhaps the most profound revelation offered by “The Continuum Concept” is that humans are, above all, social animals. The worst thing that anyone can do to anyone else is to banish them, right on par with death. Among a species as social as we humans are, it takes special effort to induce disobedience in our children. Much of the effort has been expended already on our behalf by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and by a society set on molding people into workers and consumers rather than human beings. We don’t have to work hard to raise our children to be insecure, confused, defiant and petulant, yet at the same time self-absorbed and possessing of over-inflated egos. We will raise our kids as we ourselves were raised.

The implication of our species’ innate sociability are myriad, but the entire notion can be summarized, albeit rather vaguely, by saying that in a social setting that agrees with our species’ time-tested needs and habits, little or no further work is required to maintain the system in an equilibrium. Children need no parenting, they will merely follow the example of adults and older children and raise themselves. Policing isn’t necessary, because group shunning will get the offender to change his or her behavior with less conflict and stress than any jailhouse could, and of their own free will, and permanently! People will find themselves having less and being more, and the result of this effortlessness will be greater sanity and contentment.

Obviously, this is no prescription for how to improve (or even maintain) the world we live in today, since there’s no way 7 billion people can live like hunters and gatherers. Perhaps if we took all the land horded by the rich, tore out the useless crops grown for export or ethanol, and had everyone plant subsistence crops, 7 billion people may have a chance of surviving the present century. Assuming we also somehow stopped and then reversed the warming of the planet we set into motion in the 20th century, tore out all the dams to restore fisheries and wetlands, got rid of all the guns and bombs since their presence makes it highly unlikely people will have the fruits of their spring and summer labor to sustain them through fall and winter– someone will always find it easier to just steal stuff if they have the means. And did all this right away, since time’s not on our side at this point. Let’s just say the odds are against the present situation being sustainable in any shape or form.

But if you want to know what’s gone wrong, read this book: it will show you what your life would be like if you were to be happy. Perhaps bits and pieces of the knowledge it offers can make it into your miserable 21st century existence to make nominal improvements. Sadly, this may be the limit to what we can do now, even with the best information possible. It may be time to admit we fucked up, close down the mines and the factories, and start over. God bless all of us.

Aug 07

The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel
by Jack London
ebook, 1st Edition, 186 pages
Published May 3rd 2006 by Project Gutenberg (first published 1907)
url http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1164

The Iron Heel, Jack London’s political allegory. Horrible writing to get across a largely true idea, which is yet flawed in a crucial way. The true and the valuable consists in clarity of the language and in the wonderful way complicated concepts are made coherent.  See the part on surplus value:

Here is a shoe factory. This factory takes leather and makes it into shoes. Here is one hundred dollars’ worth of leather. It goes through the factory and comes out in the form of shoes, worth, let us say, two hundred dollars. What has happened? One hundred dollars has been added to the value of the leather. How was it added? Let us see.

Capital and labor added this value of one hundred dollars. Capital furnished the factory, the machines, and paid all the expenses. Labor furnished labor. By the joint effort of capital and labor one hundred dollars of value was added.

Labor and capital having produced this one hundred dollars, now proceed to divide it. The statistics of this division are fractional; so let us, for the sake of convenience, make them roughly approximate. Capital takes fifty dollars as its share, and labor gets in wages fifty dollars as its share. We will not enter into the squabbling over the division. No matter how much squabbling takes place, in one percentage or another the division is arranged. And take notice here, that what is true of this particular industrial process is true of all industrial processes.

Now, suppose labor, having received its fifty dollars, wanted to buy back shoes. It could only buy back fifty dollars’ worth.

And now we shift from this particular process to the sum total of all industrial processes in the United States, which includes the leather itself, raw material, transportation, selling, everything. We will say, for the sake of round figures, that the total production of wealth in the United States is one year is four billion dollars. Then labor has received in wages, during the same period, two billion dollars. Four billion dollars has been produced. How much of this can labor buy back? Two billions. There is no discussion of this, I am sure. For that matter, my percentages are mild. Because of a thousand capitalistic devices, labor cannot buy back even half of the total product.

But to return. We will say labor buys back two billions. Then it stands to reason that labor can consume only two billions. There are still two billions to be accounted for, which labor cannot buy back and consume.

Two billions are left to capital. After it has paid its expenses, does it consume the remainder? Does capital consume all of its two billions?

If capital consumed its share, the sum total of capital could not increase. It would remain constant. If you will look at the economic history of the United States, you will see that the sum total of capital has continually increased. Therefore capital does not consume its share. Do you remember when England owned so much of our railroad bonds? As the years went by, we bought back those bonds. What does that mean? That part of capital’s unconsumed share bought back the bonds. What is the meaning of the fact that to-day the capitalists of the United States own hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of Mexican bonds, Russian bonds, Italian bonds, Grecian bonds? The meaning is that those hundreds and hundreds of millions were part of capital’s share which capital did not consume. Furthermore, from the very beginning of the capitalist system, capital has never consumed all of its share.

And now we come to the point. Four billion dollars of wealth is produced in one year in the United States. Labor buys back and consumes two billions. Capital does not consume the remaining two billions. There is a large balance left over unconsumed. What is done with this balance? What can be done with it? Labor cannot consume any of it, for labor has already spent all its wages. Capital will not consume this balance, because, already, according to its nature, it has consumed all it can. And still remains the balance. What can be done with it? What is done with it?

Because of this balance arises our need for a foreign market. This is sold abroad. It has to be sold abroad. There is no other way of getting rid of it. And that unconsumed surplus, sold abroad, becomes what we call our favorable balance of trade.

The United States is a capitalist country that has developed its resources. According to its capitalist system of industry, it has an unconsumed surplus that must be got rid of, and that must be got rid of abroad. What is true of the United States is true of every other capitalist country with developed resources. Every one of such countries has an unconsumed surplus. Don’t forget that they have already traded with one another, and that these surpluses yet remain. Labor in all these countries has spent its wages, and cannot buy any of the surpluses. Capital in all these countries has already consumed all it is able according to its nature. And still remain the surpluses. They cannot dispose of these surpluses to one another. How are they going to get rid of them?

Sell them to countries with undeveloped resources.

Suppose the United States disposes of its surplus to a country with undeveloped resources like, say, Brazil. Remember this surplus is over and above trade, which articles of trade have been consumed. What, then, does the United States get in return from Brazil?

From Brazil the United States, in return for her surplus, gets bonds and securities. And what does that mean? It means that the United States is coming to own railroads in Brazil, factories, mines, and lands in Brazil. And what is the meaning of that in turn?

It means that the resources of Brazil are being developed. And now, the next point. When Brazil, under the capitalist system, has developed her resources, she will herself have an unconsumed surplus. Can she get rid of this surplus to the United States? No, because the United States has herself a surplus. Can the United States do what she previously did—get rid of her surplus to Brazil? No, for Brazil now has a surplus, too.

What happens? The United States and Brazil must both seek out other countries with undeveloped resources, in order to unload the surpluses on them. But by the very process of unloading the surpluses, the resources of those countries are in turn developed. Soon they have surpluses, and are seeking other countries on which to unload.

The planet is only so large. There are only so many countries in the world. What will happen when every country in the world, down to the smallest and last, with a surplus in its hands, stands confronting every other country with surpluses in their hands?

London thinks that after the workers control the means of production, they will simply get paid 100% of their products’ value rather than half or less. But what happens when the whole world has such surpluses and a socialist planning bueracracy is not there to remedy the glut of crap no one wants or can afford? Plenty of these things can and do get bought by the government and dumped in the ocean, but what are the more general effects? I suppose this places a limit on the profits capitalists are able to earn, but more importantly, it places a limit on the need for labor. Some stasis is necessary so that the workers earn just enough to buy what is produced, but never so much that they would consider not working full time since their needs are already met. Perhaps the financial markets are the current outlet for extra surpluses, but then the huge amounts of money conjured up in the NYSE are patently a mirage, since they are tied to nothing tangible.

The flaw is a part of this same argument. It is inconceivable to Jack London that anyone would want to reverse the “evolution” which has led to greater efficiency in production, in fact he views the process as irreversible. It is self-evident to him that larger concerns are more efficient than smaller concerns, newer machines superior to older ways of producing things. As a result, his solution is to simply take over the wonderful machines that are presently in the hands of capitalists, and to give them to the workers themselves. Everything will be better then. But the notion that such a thing as economies of scale exist is simply untrue, as per Newton’s laws of the conservation of energy and matter. Greater efficiency can at best be procured against future deficits, such as the petroleum-fueled boom we have been living in the midst of since before London’s times. The mechanical looms which replaced the cottage weaving industry of the 18th century were powered by coal or steam, and as such do not offer any advantages over the long run unless there is an infinite supply of fuel, which there isn’t (England was pretty much deforested by the early Industrial Age).

It seems to me that this should close the argument, with no need to even discuss the second fallacy in London’s description, which is that it is possible to just hand over the means of production to the workers and call that anything other than the same thing that you started with. As Marshall McLuhan suggested and Fredy Perlman clearly saw, the medium (factories and machines, in this case) will dictate certain conditions of social reality irrespective of who owns or controls them.

Unless people manage to tap into a power source which is practically inexhaustible on a human scale (stuff like energy originating in stars), the whole argument is moot: we will be out of energy reserves shortly, and revert to a level of production which will make Feudalism seem futuristic, since we will have depleted all soils, bodies of water, and anything of any value or beauty by that point. The only upside  to the impending apocalypse may be that the mentality which has produced these evil stupid atavistic times will likely pass along with the times themselves: people living by the labor of their hands and the land can’t afford to pretend that they are all individuals with a god-granted right to ignore or exploit anyone and anything they come across.

Jul 22

Escape from Freedom

Escape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm
Published September 15th 1994 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 1941)
original title
The Fear of Freedom
ISBN
0805031499 (ISBN13: 9780805031492)

 

Amazing book, so good one wonders how it ever got published. Surely only because back in 1940 people still thought of civilization as responsible for the realization of human potential, collectively and individually. How much has changed.

Fromm makes sense of Freud in just a few straightforward pages: to simplify, Freud saw people as governed by innate drives seated deep in their sub-conscious. Fromm sees people as governed by social forces. The change in focus takes much of the absurdity out of Freud’s thought, and has immense explanatory potential. For example, Fromm’s emphasis explains why certain character traits are shared by entire socio-economic groups, i.e. anal personality in the middle class of his day.

But it’s mostly the realism of Fromm’s world-view that makes him so valuable. The freedom we “gained” as a result of the Enlightenment is a double-edged sword: as it individuates us and makes it possible for men to conceive of concepts like self-realization, it severs us from the comfort of established social relationships and age-old ways of life. As a result, people are isolated and without identity or support even as they are ever aware that the world is theirs for taking, should they rise up to the challenge. This is a terrifying condition to endure for most people, who turn to any number of substitute behaviors and ideologies as a kind of “security blanket,” things like nationalism and xenophobia all the way to autistic disorders, I suppose. This trend is exacerbated in times of greater social stress, like economic depression. I think this explanation rings very true in a general sense.

In an even broader sense, this book is about the way modern society is anti-human, insofar as it makes it impossible for people to grow as human beings, instead harnessing their anxiety into various kinds of despotic projects. Fromm says as much– I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t quote it, but I am not making it up: elsewhere, Fromm says that the majority of people in western society today live (and are) as automatons. He does not mince his words. Yet, as seems common, he does not follow his own thoughts to their conclusions. He thinks that since modern society has the technological means to make the realization of human potential a possibility for all people, this is a worthy goal to pursue (technology is not a tool to be used in a disinterested way, it creates its own social conditions and eventually entire world-views. See Zerzan, Mumford, all the way to Marx).

Fromm realizes that the Humanist freedom is not all positive, that it involves the giving up of security enjoyed by people in older societies. But I wonder if the positive freedom as formulated by Fromm, the freedom to seek and fulfill self-realization, is not a hoax, leaving us with nothing but the loss of our place in the world, and nothing to compensate for the loss. As Kurt Vonnegut said (I think he said it), the jury is still out on whether big brains give their bearers an evolutionary advantage or not. The jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned, on whether consciousness is anything but a hindrance, and if it is not, that it is not best in small doses, like so many things.