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.

Nov 11

Anti-Technology Revolution

fight the power


Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How
Theodore John Kaczynski
Fitch & Madison Publishers, 2016

Ted Kaczynski’s new book is divided roughly into two parts, as indicated by the title: the why, and the how. Looking at the two parts separately allows for a more generous reading of the book, so that’s what I’ll do.

The first two chapters deal with why modern society is bound to fail. I share the conviction that this is, sadly, all but an inevitability with TJK, and appreciate much of his analysis. In chapter 1, probably the most convincing chapter of the book, TJK makes the assertion that “the development of a society can never be subject to rational human control” (the chapter’s title). This is a logical place to start for an analysis of our civilization’s future, and the arguments in favor of this notion are convincing and plentiful, perhaps more so to someone already on board with the idea, but I think, with a little work, to any rational person. Our leaders are, by their own admissions and all available evidence, always playing catch-up with current events. They mostly react to what happens, and preferentially plan for the immediate and near-term future, and only marginally for the long-term.

One of the most important ideas of the book is introduced in this chapter. Competition between what TJK calls “self-propagating systems” (certain institutions, corporations, agencies, but also ideas, organizations, movements) works in such a way as to privilege short-term planning at the expense of survival in the long term. So, if a group of companies are competing in a certain area, they are under constant pressure from their competitors to use available resources with no thought for the future. If one of them decides not to extract resources as fast as is possible, they are quickly out-competed by the rest, which are all the while growing through reckless resource management. Of course, the combined rapacity of the competing companies will also condemn them to failure when they exhaust all available resources.

TJK chooses the unfortunate name “natural selection” for this process of competition between corporations, governments, nations, and movements. It is unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that the interaction of international corporations and nation-states is only partially competitive: John Kenneth Galbraith argued convincingly in The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society that the relations of the biggest corporations are characterized largely by, if not cooperation, than a sort of detente. This should be self-evident in regard to nation-states. So, the dynamic described by TJK where short-term, rapacious planning is privileged due to cut-throat competition doesn’t apply at the level of the biggest players, since they are in most cases not competing, which opens a window of possibility for those interested in salvaging a little of our poor planet.

There are many other problems with the use of “natural selection” here. It is a vague term when applied outside of its biological context, and has already been misused egregiously by people using it to justify inhumane social policies (social darwinism). Even in its narrow biological meaning, it’s not clear how big a role natural selection plays in evolution: a recent trend has been to emphasize cooperation, as well as to give more credence to the complex web of relationships between organisms in ecosystems. As a widely used and misused term, “natural selection” also seems to discourage closer examination of the actual relationships in question. Lastly, and most importantly, when applied outside of its strict biological meaning, natural selection suggests that everyone is engaged in competition for survival at all times, that the basic condition of living things and man in particular is that of “nature red in tooth and claw,” which isn’t true. As discussed elsewhere, competition attributed to man in his natural state is a more accurate description of civilized life, and Hobbes’ famous “nasty, brutish and short” line describes the lives of civilized humans much more accurately than those of our “primitive” forebears.

Competition seems to be a condition of civilized life. It applies on most levels short of that of the biggest corporations and nation states, and plays an even bigger role in the official ideology of capitalist societies. It’s been noted by astute observers that capitalists would subject everyone to cut-throat competition leading to a reduction in labor costs and standards of living, while reserving welfare-state treatment for their own class, and they’ve largely succeeded in shaping many nations in this way. Ultimately, I agree with TJK’s premise that technologically advanced civilization is on its way to a catastrophe, and that competition is a driving force behind this process.

What, then, of collapse? The other work most sorely missing from the bibliography of Anti-Tech Revolution is Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies (there are many works sorely missing from this book’s bibliography, works which would have saved TJK from duplicating effort, simple errors, and even writing entire chapters). Collapse of Complex Societies analyzes diminishing returns on social complexity in a few historical civilizations, and finds evidence that the laws of diminishing returns apply in equal measure to contemporary civilization. Collapse, the point at which no further investment can offset the drag caused by the added costs of social complexity, is inevitable as civilizations age and grow top heavy, according to this model. Tainter’s analysis doesn’t take environmental costs and resource depletion into account, so collapse is simply a reversion to a less complex state to shed the burden of costs imposed by added complexity. We won’t be so lucky.

Besides providing support for his thesis, Tainter’s work would have saved TJK from speculating about things like artificial intelligence and “Moore’s Law”, the idea that the performance of computer chips would double every year or two, growing exponentially. Certain dreamers have taken this, as well as the intoxicating pace of technological development of late in general, to mean that technology as a whole is always developing at an ever increasing rate. “Moore’s Law” itself was formulated to come to an end within decades, but it shouldn’t take a scientist to see that this idea is at odds with the law of diminishing returns. It may happen that something which excites the imaginations of hordes of people (and is lavishly funded) defies the overall trend in diminishing returns for a while, but it’s pure folly to think that this is somehow a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

TJK claims that the collapse of this civilization will wipe out all complex life forms on the planet: “…the extinction event that has now begun is of a fundamentally different kind than all of the previous mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet.” This may be a minor point, but I still wish that the exact nature of the collapse was discussed, and the reasons why TJK believes in the total destruction scenario fleshed out. As it is, no reasons are given other than cursory and hodge-podge mentions of some of the ills we face today.

In any case, since civilization is doomed, TJK believes a timely revolution is the only way to steer our course away from total disaster. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the shape this revolution, and the movement leading up to it, must take, and the errors to avoid in pursuing this goal. They read like the thoughts of someone who’s never participated in a group project.

Manual for Revolutionary Leaders by Fredy and Lorraine Perlman (written under the pen name Michael Velli) is an extremely high-brow spoof of what it would take to pull off a revolutionary usurpation of power. Anti-Tech Revolution reads as if it could be a less-literate part of that spoof, except, of course, TJK is dead serious. I’ll try to keep this short, because I’m getting tired of talking about this book while all kinds of seemingly important things, like U.S. election drama, are happening, but here’s a quote:

A revolutionary movement can’t be successful if it allows its pursuit of its objective to be limited by reservations or qualifications of any kind, for these can only lead to fatal hesitation at critical times. (p.153)

Yes, it’s what it looks like it is: TJK is saying that moral qualms are fatal to a successful revolutionary group, the kind he is writing the manual for building. He also says that this group can’t be democratic in its decision making, must have the rank and file follow the leadership’s directives to a letter, must exclude well-wishers and fellow travelers to remain “pure,” and so on. In a word, he is describing an authoritarian-style group, a group along Stalinist or Maoist lines. Plenty of these have always existed, and those of us who have actually had the experience of working on common projects with members of such groups know that their members cultivate the attitude of humorless automatons, and that the eventual outcome of such endeavors is bloodshed and misery. In the words of Raoul Vaneigem, “those who speak of revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”

TJK justifies the bloodshed and the misery the revolution he is calling for will cause by evoking the image of a ravaged, uninhabited planet Earth, the result of our civilization’s hubris and greed if we don’t drastically change course soon. This is a relevant point. To me, it seems that any kind of revolution that is executed in the spirit of authoritarianism and inflexibility, and is undemocratic and immoral to boot, can only create a new order that is more of the same: hatred, oppression, and misery. It may be argued that this wouldn’t be the case with a successful anti-technological revolution, since once there is no technology more complicated than a knife, any tyrant will have to content him/her self with a fairly small domain. This may be so– I would certainly take my chances in such a world over this one, and once there, perhaps it won’t matter what road we took. But until technological society is overthrown, TJK is basically asking a lot of us to do really awful, immoral, inhumane things, perhaps for the rest of our lives, perhaps longer, in the name of this revolution. The sad thing is, I know there are plenty of people (with corpses in their mouths) who will gladly do those exact things, but I think that even for them, this project will have to be coated in much sweeter terms than are found here.

The thing that is most disappointing to me about Anti-Tech Revolution is the fact that TJK seems to have gotten human nature utterly wrong in so far as he pegs us as motivated by competition. This may be because the only ethnological or anthropological work he uses is Jared Diamond’s Collapse, an unfortunate choice on many levels. If people are so hopelessly competitive that they need to be protected from their own destructive instincts and delivered into a more humane utopia, pretty much against their natures (yet, ironically, by a revolutionary organization run by an undemocratic and immoral elite), why bother? If people are this nasty, they will make the garden of eden into a concentration camp. Let them rot.

I believe that people are not driven by competition. Rather, people adopt the qualities that they see their neighbors possessing, and their neighbors adopt the qualities that society says they should possess. Everyone simply wants to fit in, and does their best to do so. Paradoxically, if everyone practices anti-social behaviors such as excessive competitiveness, selfishness, or greed, our need to fit in will drive us to act in an anti-social way as well. But there it is. It can be unlearned. Many societies didn’t, and don’t, practice greed and competitiveness.

Materialism, greed, is the common factor underlying the pathology of our lives, our civilization’s reckless race to the bottom, to its’ doom. Seriously! I realize how uncool that is to say, since even the Christians view harping on greed as outdated and passe. But that’s really all it is. Societies choose what values they will adopt and to what extent, and a wide range exists among societies in the world today. Scandinavian countries have made a collective decision to support the weakest members of their society; the U.S.A., by contrast, has made a collective decision to blame the weakest members of society for their own problems, and to celebrate those with the most instead. In fact, so much of American society is geared solely to excuse and justify greed that people are literally bewildered by the contradictions and paradoxes this creates. To take something everyone knows is bad and to spin an entire ideology around it to transform it into something good can leave anyone not sure which way is up.

Getting rid of technology and sending society back to the stone age would certainly solve the problem of greed by getting rid of anything anyone might covet. I am not against this solution at all. But, I find it very hard to see anything good coming from pursuing this goal (in such a way) for my generation, who won’t yet be the beneficiaries of a greed-free world, but will have to spend our lives living out the worst things our present society has to offer, and then some. Yet, the future of our planet hangs in the balance.

Aug 08

Walking Dead, depressed

night will fall on the common slave

Walking Dead

Walking Dead speaks to the malaise contemporary Americans experience: the suspicion that each one of us is completely alone in this most modern of nightmares, fighting against hordes of human-seeming but inhuman creatures intent on devouring us, and unable to fully trust even those we know to be human because they are our own kind.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve broken into uncontrollable tears when watching any play, whether the Milwaukee Highschool of the Arts production of Guys and Dolls, or Brecht, or any play at all. I was more likely to cry when already lonely, which should have pointed me to the explanation, but it was only after seeing an episode of the Walking Dead that I realized what the deal is. Almost as soon as I flipped the channel and saw the group of Walking Dead characters doing their Walking Dead thing, looking serious and talking in terse, loaded phrases, and acting selflessly and committed to each other, I was in tears. It doesn’t matter what the context, the thing that busts me up is seeing people act selflessly and support each other. It’s interesting that I’ve been vulnerable to this feeling long before I knew what caused it or what it meant.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone experiencing this kind of reaction. The popularity of the Walking Dead show seems to bear this out: there are many good shows on TV, but Walking Dead is somewhat unique in presenting characters who are by definition an ensemble, a group of survivors forced to act in concert and rely on each other for literally everything. We see our own lives in the predicament of the show’s characters as they struggle to survive in a world populated by inhumanity. Equally importantly, we wish we had the kind of mutual support and close-knit community they do. We are attracted to the story because we wish we were them, which is saying a lot– the citizens of “the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth” would trade places in a flash with a band of survivors hanging on for life in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested world, if only for a couple hours each week. We are that damaged, and that starved for community.

Personally, I had a fine childhood as these things go, surely a better one than most people have these days. In the Soviet Union, most families lived in multi-generational households, and I had the benefit of grandparents and great-grandparents spending at least as much time with me as my parents as a young child. This is all that’s meant by having a good childhood: that a child is loved and attended to, that he/she has role-models to look up to, that he/she knows that though it might do something undesirable, he/she is good and only the inappropriate action is under censure. I had more problems once my parents, baby sister, and I emigrated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. in 1989. I was 9 years old. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a supportive family available much of the time as my parents threw themselves into the getting ahead in life, and to add to it, I had to deal with being an outcast at school, learning English and what all. I don’t want to overstate things or leave the impression that I blame anyone for anything, or view myself as exceptional in any way, good or bad. It seems that my experiences are roughly par for the course, at least for western families, and a huge step up from being born into effective slavery, being kidnapped to become a child soldier, or having to pick tomatoes for pennies until your back permanently gives out at age 26 and cancer from the pesticides becomes terminal at age 29.

There are more people living in an earthly hell today than ever before, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total humanity, but that doesn’t mean we should be glad we got off with merely psychological trauma. Psychological trauma can leave people unable to live satisfying or meaningful lives, just like any other kind of trauma, and because it is frequently unseen and its victims stigmatized, even, it can be as disruptive as any other curse to befall a person. Again, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that westerners with depression are as urgent a priority as landmine-maimed children. But we are making landmines and assault weapons faster than ever, and churning out emotionally scarred babies and children at equally frantic speeds, so let’s cut the bullshit out. This essay focuses on emotional trauma because it seems to me it is highly misunderstood and ignored, while victims of wars we sponsor elsewhere in the world will always receive hysterical attention from certain people, followed by airdrops of “aid”: one box of food for the victims, one box of guns for the killers. One box of medical supplies for the victims, one box of mortars for the killers. Very symmetrical, our “aid.” So glad we’ve become so impartial and scientific in the west, bias is such a dangerous thing.

We don’t have any way to compare the rate at which we suffer psychological disorders today to that of a pre-industrial, pre-urban, or pre-civilized age, but there are many clues that seem to suggest that we are much crazier than our “uncivilized” forebears. It should probably be mentioned that we are much more violent and homicidal than our uncivilized ancestors, propaganda like War Before Civilization notwithstanding. As for our mental health, depression, an epidemic affecting 17% of Americans over their lifetime, seems to be a side effect of civilized, western-style life. In North America, the probability of having a major depressive episode within any year-long period is 3-5% for males and 8-10% for females. If you believe depression is a chemical imbalance, this statistic is baffling. Why would evolution, or Jeebus, make women twice as likely to become seriously depressed? What possible advantage could there be in becoming morose and ineffectual, and how could a loving god curse his creations in such a way? If you consider depression as the result of living in conditions unsuited to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of a living being, the mystery solves itself: a misogynistic society is bound to depress women more than men.

A few thoughts on mental illness:

1. Mental illness is mostly a response of an animal to a traumatic situation it can’t escape except by rearranging its relationship to (or perception of) its environment.

2. Medicine now says that depression is the result of faulty wiring in the brain, or bad genes. If there was profit in it, the same people would be looking for the bad genes and the faulty neurons which cause people to fall in love, grieve, or experience joy. Depression is an emotion, and most often an appropriate reaction to unacceptable external experience.

3. Under capitalism, medicine will always develop and promote short term treatments which address symptoms only, rather than targeting the causes of the problem. Long-term solutions, involving deep soul-searching and examination of the environment as thoroughly as the patient, are by nature not profitable.

4. Most therapists offer their patients self-delusion as the sole remedy for their problems. I am yet to meet a therapist who will say, “what you are describing is a situation which doesn’t meet the standards and expectations of a living being. Find a way to change or escape this situation as quickly as possible, or you will continue to be depressed.” That’s bad enough, but their job is frequently to convince you that you’re dead sick and need therapy or drugs, when you are actually experiencing the appropriate response to your situation– your body and mind saying, “This is unacceptable, get me out of here.”

5. AA would appear to be a different kind of a solution to the same problem, as the methods used there appear drastically different from therapy or psychiatry. Yet, AA insists that the problems a person experiences are entirely of their own making. This is an interesting and complicated problem. On the one hand, AA works by giving people what they actually need to get better: friends, a community, an extended family. On the other hand, it insists that there is nothing wrong with the world, and anyway we’re not going to discuss it, which is so patently untrue many people can’t take AA seriously. The consequence of this doctrine is the need to repent, admit one’s guilt, and in addition, wear blinders going forward. This is why AA drives so many people away and looks like a cult to others.

6. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Niebuhr’s original version: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Quite a difference there. I like the original better.

7. When you’re told that you need to quit smoking or lose weight or whatever to be happy, you’re saying that you’re not good enough to be loved as you are, which everyone is. You’re also putting the cart before the horse, because achieving anything like quitting smoking or losing weight requires being to some extent loved and supported, which is what you’re trying to achieve by becoming more lovable and less smelling of smoke. Besides, many people smoke or overeat precisely because these things offer some comfort, however counter-productive, for the loveless conditions of their lives.

I spent my teenage years “depressed,” was pretty good through college, and became “depressed” again after graduating. I’m still frequently depressed today, but not like I used to get. The incidents of “depression” in my life correspond in every case to unsatisfactory conditions in my life, and the perception that there’s nothing I can do to improve things. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as serious depression which requires being treated with drugs, but in my life, the life of someone who was mostly raised in a loving atmosphere, serious depression has always been associated with bad things going on outside of my head, that is, my depression has always been situational. Most people are either unaware of the trauma they may have suffered, or don’t recognize unacceptable conditions in their present environment as such. When afflicted with depression, such people would have to conclude that the problem originates inside of themselves and needs to be treated with drugs, when the real culprit is the life they find themselves leading, and can at least theoretically be fixed by returning these conditions to a state more in agreement with the expectations of living beings.

We are living today in a society based on organized lovelessness, in Aldous Huxley’s incisive words. Humans, like all other animals, have certain expectations built into their development, expectations which, when not met, cause various disruptions to our development as human beings. These expectations are simple: for example, we’ve needed no instructions on what babies and children need to grow up into healthy adults for 99% of our species’ existence on this planet. Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept is a profound look at what these simple expectations are, as practiced by tribes of hunters and gatherers in the Amazon when she lived among them in the 1960s. Liedloff calls children raised according to the species- appropriate expectations Continuum children, and explains much about the differences between such well-adjusted children and the ones deprived various continuum experiences so common in our society. There’s more to it than just love, but love seems to be such a huge part of the continuum childhood experience that that will be the part I will focus on.

Children who receive the appropriate amounts and kinds of love at the appropriate stage of their development grow up into the kinds of adults their culture expects them to become. As hard as this is to believe for modern-day Americans, children who are raised by loving adults in a functioning community don’t go through rebellious stages, don’t experience “generation gaps”, don’t have to go looking for themselves. They know who they are at each stage of their life, and possess the confidence that who they are is right and good. From a helpless babe in arms, to a toddler tagging after older kids, to an older child learning about their world, to teenagers trying out their growing skills and talents, all the way to adults ready to take up the tasks of full members of society, they have the confidence that they are loved and wanted for who they are, and know that when they are scolded, it is for something they do, not who they are– and are just as eager to correct the offending behavior as their guardians. Although love is the crucial component of this process, their need for role-models can’t be overstated: we learn through observation and emulation, and being a part of a group whose members themselves know and like who they are is essential.

Many things can go wrong in a child’s life, and sometimes it seems as though we’ve set up a cruel laboratory to find out all the terrible ways a person’s life can be disrupted by withholding the appropriate continuum experiences from them as they develop. If denied the love and support they need and expect from those around them at some point of their upbringing, they will sustain trauma, a hole inside of them that they will seek to fill for the rest of their life. The many ways in which such trauma will play out in a persons life can also be somewhat reduced and simplified: they will seek to fill this void with love, or substitutions for love, for as long as the basic issue is unaddressed, if not their whole life. They will enter into relationships they will sabotage, engage in self-destructive behaviors, try to replace the missing love with food, drugs, money, sex, etc., and so on. They will be manipulable by anyone willing to offer them love or some substitute as bait. They will respond well to advertising and be very good consumers, but will make poor neighbors, parents, lovers, or friends. Unless the pattern is addressed or interrupted, they will raise their children exactly as they themselves were raised, holding out love as a reward or punishment in order to control them and extract love from them.

“Our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organized lovelessness.” In fact, our civilization not only creates unloved and loveless people, but would be impossible without such people. Modern civilization can be said to be fueled by lovelessness. 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 making their discovery public, little by little transformed the world into a cruel emotional torture chamber, graduating people into the shopping mall/ labor camp world beyond. 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. This is something early capitalists were well aware of, and much ink was spilt trying to solve this “problem.” The history of this process is described in detail in 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 from others before the pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is appealing to them. People had good lives, the supposed brutishness, nastiness, and shortness notwithstanding, in the days before capitalism, and in their relatively contented state couldn’t be convinced to work and consume. Their lives had to be impoverished before they would join the ranks of the workers, and the primary impoverishment was in the social realm: love, a universal condition of life for 99% of our species existence, had to be diminished and made scarce. In a world peopled by healthy, undamaged human beings, no one would work at anything other than tasks they enjoy for a minute longer than it took them to fill their belly. No one would wear their weapons and armor once the two sides have clashed, some young people got to show off their prowess and coordination, and some booty has been acquired to show the folks back home. What sane person kills other living beings for fun?

When you break up human communities that grow naturally, and make everyone starved for love all the time, you are well on your way to ruling the world. This may well be a paradox built in to human history, making civilization all but inevitable, and healthy human communities all but doomed. As Fredy Perlman describes in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, when a group of people adopts agriculture and implements of war, their neighbors are faced with the choice of being conquered and made into slaves, or resisting and soon discovering that to resist successfully, they must become like the aggressors. Getting as far away as possible from the civilized madmen hasn’t been an option for some time, as people have occupied every habitable place on earth.

By contrast, healthy human beings have no need to prove themselves the best in the world at anything. They are not prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors or perfectionism, and needless to say, have no unaddressed anger issues or the kinds of insecurities which make members of our society such easy pray for advertisers and cult leaders. They tend to consider any idea on the basis of whether it will be fun, work only until they are sated and have no concept of accumulating wealth except to get through winter in cold climes. They identify themselves with their group, and think in terms of group welfare when making decisions. This doesn’t mean they are less uniquely individual than we are, in fact, there is greater possibility for creativity and individual expression in the framework of a healthy community. As Wendell Berry said in Life is a Miracle, “Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42) For members of functional communities, individualism is the freedom to be who you want, sure that your choices will be accepted by the rest of the members. Raised to respect others and be confident of their respect, you would never want something that would damage the people you love, and they would never think to tell you your unique take on life is unacceptable.

Walking Dead makes me cry because I, like so many others in our broken society, see myself in the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, while at the same time desperately wanting to be a part of a community like the one shared in by the characters in the show. I think that the show’s creators understand this. The characters’ survival is always a common project, and to be cast out of the group is usually as good as receiving a death sentence. That’s what it means to survive as a human being: humans don’t function one at a time. We are social animals, and in seclusion, we die. In the few episodes I’ve seen, the fact that to cast a person out of the group is as good as killing them has been repeatedly stressed. This is a basic truth of our species’ existence on this planet: an exile is as good as dead even if they survive physically, because we are not made to live apart from others of our kind. It’s striking that this basic condition of being human has been all but forgotten today. Rick continues, “But I won’t have to, because you’re going to change. Starting now.” He’s optimistic, but talking to a small group of people, he can afford to be: his opinion will be heard, considered, and perhaps heeded. I’m in no position to be optimistic, but maybe someday I will be. At the very least I have some idea of what I’m looking for, and what I’m not looking for. It’d be interesting to find out whether the Walking Dead people have had much response from viewers seeing what I see in the show: a community determined to survive together in a world where a lone person has no chance.

Jul 11

Fredy Perlman’s The Strait

Freddy Perlman

The Strait. Book of Obenabi. His Songs.
Fredy Perlman
Black & Red
Detroit, Michigan 1988

The last book written by Fredy Perlman (in fact, unfinished at his death: this is the first volume of a two volume work he planned), “The Strait” is the story of Indians and whites in and around present day Detroit, starting in the 17th century (or the beginning of time) and ending in the 19th. It is narrated by a series of characters whose lives are progressively more uprooted by the European invaders, their diseases, technology, and eventually ways and means. The book chronicles the different ways people of the community deal with the invasion and the destruction of their world.

I fell progressively more in love with this book as I read on; by the end I didn’t want it to end and spent hours looking up any extra information on the characters and events that i could find. The portrait of a human community in slow free-fall is moving and instructive. Having only briefly seen what a human community looks and acts like in my 36 years, I couldn’t get enough of the ones depicted here. Fredy Perlman is acutely aware of what it is that makes people living among each other more than a mere collection of individuals, and the ways in which this unity is inherently fragile. I think Fredy is on the same page with Wendell Berry and others who have suggested that joy is not real unless it is shared. Said otherwise, our lives are meaningless without joy, and joy is impossible without a shared human context. The “constraints” of old-fashioned cultures are revealed to be the opposite of what we’ve always been told they are (namely, fetters): the framework which makes joy and self-realization possible.

“The Strait” is initially hard to get into, in part because Fredy Perlman refuses to give his narrative conventional time markers or common place names, and in part because of the nature of the writing, which is verb-heavy and song-like, definitely no popular fiction here (Detroit is Tiosa Rondion, its Iroquois name; the lack of time references was circumvented in this Black & Red edition by putting corresponding dates at the top of every page). After a while, this seems perfectly natural, and pretty soon you are immersed in the story. Perhaps this is what the accounts of people who inhabit cyclical time would sound like. Once acclimated, the book is more than rewarding of the effort.

Like “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan,” “The Strait” is deceptive in that it reads like poetry, but is thoroughly researched and accurate with regard to what goes on. I read an academic history of the Indian-European relations in the great lakes region earlier this year (“The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815″ by Richard White), and as a result noticed early on that the events described here are historically accurate. Reading this book with the internet browser handy has been fun as well, since the characters are largely historical, and easily researched on the web.

“The Strait” and “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan” are both amazing books which will unfortunately go unread by the vast majority of people because they are unconventional and uncompromising with regard to the expectations of the average reader in our culture. The low expectations and short attention spans will not go unappeased as long as there are NYT best-seller lists, while books that require the kind of work from the reader that this one does are few. Once that “work” has been put in, the reader is amply rewarded; knowledge of the entire world and one’s place in it can be this book’s gift to those willing to try.