Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’m aware of at least two authors who describe American character in less than glowing terms: Alexis de Tocqueville and Morris Berman. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (two vols., 1835 and 1840) is among the most cited, least read (by 21st-century Americans, anyway) books about America. (I admit to not having read it.) Berman’s American trilogy (titles unnamed, all of which I’ve read) is better known by contemporary Americans (those who read, anyway) and is unflinching in its denunciation of, among other things, our prideful stupidity. Undoubtedly, others have taken a crack at describing American character.

American identity, OTOH, if such a thing even exists, is somewhat more elusive for a variety of reasons. For instance, Americans lack the formative centuries or millennia of history Europeans and Asians have at their disposal. Moreover, Americans (except for Native Americans — multiple synonyms and euphemisms available) are immigrants (or their descendants) drawn from all around the globe. Accordingly, we lack a coherent unifying narrative about who we are. The American melting pot may come closest but is insufficient in its generality. National identity may well be fraying in other societies as each loses its distinctiveness over time. Nonetheless, two influential factors to formation of a loose American identity are negative identity (defining oneself as against others, e.g., adolescent rebellion rather fitting for a young nation) and borrowed identity (better known as cultural appropriation). The latter has been among the chief complaints of social justice warriors.

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I’ll try to be relatively brief, since I’ve been blogging about industrial and ecological collapse for more than a decade. Jeff Gibbs released a new documentary called Planet of the Humans (sideways nod to the dystopian movie franchises Planet of the Apes — as though humans aren’t also apes). Gibbs gets top billing as the director, but this is clearly a Michael Moore film, who gets secondary billing as the executing producer. The film includes many of Moore’s established eccentricities, minus the humor, and is basically an exposé on greenwashing: the tendency of government agencies, environmental activists, and capitalist enterprises to coopt and transform earnest environmental concern into further profit-driven destruction of the natural environment. Should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, despite the array of eco-luminaries making speeches and soundbites about “green” technologies that purport to save us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Watching them fumble and evade when answering simple, direct questions is a clear indication of failed public-relations approaches to shaping the narrative.

Turns out that those ballyhooed energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biofuel, biomass) ride on the back of fossil fuels and aren’t any more green or sustainable than the old energy sources they pretend to replace. Again, no surprise if one has even a basic understanding of the dynamics of energy production and consumption. That admittedly sounds awfully jaded, but the truth has been out there for a long time already for anyone willing and able to confront it. Similarly, the documentary mentions overpopulation, another notorious elephant in the room (or herd of elephants, as aptly put in the film), but it’s not fully developed. Entirely absent is any question of not meeting energy demand. That omission is especially timely given how, with the worldwide economy substantially scaled back at present and with it significant demand destruction (besides electricity), the price of oil has fallen through the floor. Nope, the tacit assumption is that energy demand must be met despite all the awful short- and long-term consequences.

Newsfeeds indicate that the film has sparked considerable controversy in only a few days following release. Debate is to be expected considering a coherent energy strategy has never been developed or agreed upon and interested parties have a lot riding on outcomes. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but the entire human race is bound up in the outcome, too, and it doesn’t look good for us or most of the rest of the species inhabiting the planet. Thus, I was modestly dismayed when the end of the film wandered into happy chapter territory and offered the nonsensical platitude in voiceover, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Because we’ve passed and in fact lapped the point of no return repeatedly, the range of possibilities has shrunk precipitously. The most obvious is that human population of 7.7 billion (and counting) is being sorely tested. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that post-pandemic there can be no return to the world we’ve known for the past 70 years or so. Although the documentary could not be reasonably expected to be entirely up to date, it should at least have had the nerve to conclude what the past few decades have demonstrated with abundant clarity.

Addendum

This review provides support for my assessment that “green” or “sustainable” energy cannot be delivered without significant contribution of fossil fuels.

Caveat: I’m not an economist, nor do I subscribe to most economic analyses. The dismal science is a weird sort of voodoo practiced by self-proclaimed priests and wizards. So more than usual, this blog post is me talking outta my ass.

As we enter a new phase of history where developments come barreling at us with seismic force, the past offers limited guidance what to expect or how to act or react. We are all being sorely tested in myriad ways. Considering how so much of modern civilization depends on money to keep things going, we’re also now testing the limits of fiat currency’s departure from reality before the whole stinkin’ mess collapses. The appearance of cryptocurrencies based on absolutely nothing (unless social consensus and/or obscurantism counts) was easy to ignore, though the opportunity cost is obvious. Public debt and unfunded obligations (e.g., ballooning repayment schedules, entitlements, pensions) have been less easy to ignore, though that proverbial can continues to be kicked down the road indefinitely. But now, this week, we’re greeted with news that the U.S. Congress is readying helicopter money to be showered on everyone to stave off the very collapse some of us consider inevitable. Can’t ignore that. How it will be distributed is unknown (by me, at least), but historical guidance suggests that the least needful will be getting most of it.

The rather precipitous disappearance and reappearance of money (or value) from the U.S. stock market, first in a matter of weeks and then in only days, invites not just disbelief but jaw-dropping incredulity. Unlike the previous crash/recovery when the malefactors and beneficiaries were mostly the same claque of Wall Street goons, this latest crash and preposterous flash recovery (for now) owes its origin to other causes, not that any of the old vulnerabilities were lessened. Most regular citizens a decade ago wanted bad actors — criminals, really — prosecuted and jailed. Didn’t happen, of course, and we have no such scapegoats this time around. Moreover, whatever the extraordinary measures might best be called (bail-outs, bail-ins, etc.), they signal a foundational test of the nature of money.

Modern monetary theory (MMT) would have us believe that sovereign countries like the U.S., especially because the U.S. dollar functions as the world’s reserve currency, can essentially print and spend as much of the stuff as needed. No blowback will result — certainly not the dread specter of hyperinflation. But how confident can anyone be in the theory when its relatively modest prior practice has been immoderated so egregiously? If hyperinflation does indeed follow, which I can’t prophesy, economic priests and wizards ought to be defrocked permanently. Good luck with that, I suppose; rational explanations fare poorly with a public fed a steady diet of false narratives, lies, cons, and swindles leavened with a heavy dose of aspiration and hope, if not outright greed.

A heavily used rhetorical device of mine is to remind folks that there is always a bigger umbrella over the narrow theme of any blog post, and this final paragraph is no different. That covering is the nonmonetary resources that the money economy motivates. Whether a loaf of bread costs 20¢ or $20, the bread is what really sustains us, not whatever make-believe currency we use to facilitate exchange. Sure, the money compels us (for now) to do the things that make the bread or extract the oil or assemble the disparate parts of the widget. But once money becomes worthless or goods become so prohibitively expensive our efforts no longer suffice to sustain us, what then? We have no alternatives or second chances on the horizon, do we? Thus, the anticipated infusion of helicopter money might well be the equivalent of an all-in bet in poker. That’s a pretty big bet with whole population hanging in the balance.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

A potpourri of recent newsbits and developments. Sorry, no links or support provided. If you haven’t already heard of most of these, you must be living under a rock. On a moment’s consideration, that may not be such a bad place to dwell.

rant on/

I just made up the word of the title, but anyone could guess its origin easily. Many of today’s political and thought leaders (not quite the same thing; politics doesn’t require much thought), as well as American institutions, are busy creating outrageously preposterous legacies for themselves. Doomers like me doubt anyone will be around to recall in a few decades. For instance, the mainstream media (MSM) garners well-deserved rebuke, often attacking each other in the form of one of the memes of the day: a circular firing squad. Its brazen attempts at thought-control (different thrusts at different media organs) and pathetic abandonment of mission to inform the public with integrity have hollowed it out. No amount of rebranding at the New York Times (or elsewhere) will overcome the fact that the public has largely moved on, swapping superhero fiction for the ubiquitous fictions spun by the MSM and politicians. The RussiaGate debacle may be the worst example, but the MSM’s failures extend well beyond that. The U.S. stock market wobbles madly around its recent all-time high, refusing to admit its value has been severely overhyped and inflated through quantitative easing, cheap credit (an artificial monetary value not unlike cryptocurrencies or fiat currency created out of nothing besides social consensus), and corporate buybacks. The next crash (already well overdue) is like the last hurricane: we might get lucky and it will miss us this season, but eventually our lottery number will come up like those 100-year floods now occurring every few years or decades.

Public and higher education systems continue to creak along, producing a glut of dropouts and graduates ill-suited to do anything but the simplest of jobs requiring no critical thought, little training, and no actual knowledge or expertise. Robots and software will replace them anyway. Civility and empathy are cratering: most everyone is ready and willing to flip the bird, blame others, air their dirty laundry in public, and indulge in casual violence or even mayhem following only modest provocation. Who hasn’t fantasized just a little bit about acting out wildly, pointlessly like the mass killers blackening the calendar? It’s now de rigueur. Thus, the meme infiltrates and corrupts vulnerable minds regularly. Systemic failure of the U.S. healthcare and prison systems — which ought to be public institutions but are, like education, increasingly operated for profit to exploit public resources — continues to be exceptional among developed nations, as does the U.S. military and its bloated budget.

Gaffe-prone Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden cemented his reputation as a goof years ago yet continues to build upon it. One might think that at his age enough would have been enough, but the allure of the highest office in the land is just too great, so he guilelessly applies for the job and the indulgence of the American public. Of course, the real prize-winner is 45, whose constant stream of idiocy and vitriol sends an entire nation scrambling daily to digest their Twitter feeds and make sense of things. Who knows (certainly I don’t) how serious was his remark that he wanted to buy Greenland? It makes a certain sense that a former real-estate developer would offhandedly recommend an entirely new land grab. After all, American history is based on colonialism and expansionism. No matter that the particular land in question is not for sale (didn’t matter for most of our history, either). Of course, everyone leapt into the news cycle with analysis or mockery, only the second of which was appropriate. Even more recent goofiness was 45’s apparent inability to read a map resulting in the suggestion that Hurricane Dorian might strike Alabama. Just as with the Greenland remark, PR flacks went to work to manage and reconfigure public memory, revising storm maps for after-the-fact justification. Has anyone in the media commented that such blatant historical revisionism is the stuff of authoritarian leaders (monarchs, despots, and tyrants) whose underlings and functionaries, fearing loss of livelihood if not indeed life, provide cover for mistakes that really ought to lead to simple admission of error and apology? Nope, just add more goofs to the heaping pile of preposterity.

Of course, the U.S. is hardly alone in these matters. Japan and Russia are busily managing perception of their respective ongoing nuclear disasters, including a new one in Russia that has barely broken through our collective ennui. Having followed the U.S. and others into industrialization and financialization of its economy, China is running up against the same well-known ecological despoliation and limits to growth and is now circling the drain with us. The added spectacle of a trade war with the petulant president in the U.S. distracts everyone from coming scarcity. England has its own clownish supreme leader, at least for now, trying to manage an intractable but binding issue: Brexit. (Does every head of state need a weirdo hairdo?) Like climate change, there is no solution no matter how much steadfast hoping and wishing one into existence occurs, so whatever eventually happens will throw the region into chaos. Folks shooting each other for food and fresh water in the Bahamas post-Hurricane Dorian is a harbinger of violent hair-triggers in the U.S. poised to fire at anything that moves when true existential threats finally materialize. Thus, our collective human legacy is absurd and self-destroying. No more muddling through.

/rant off

Returning to Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, chapter 2 (subtitled “Progress and its Contradictions”) profiles two writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Voltaire was a proponent and embodiment of Enlightenment values and ethics, whereas Rousseau was among the primary critics. Both were hugely influential, and the controversy inherent in their relative perspectives is unresolved even today. First come Rousseau’s criticisms (in Mishra’s prose):

… the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens [p. 87]

This assessment could easily be mistaken for a description of the 1980s and 90s: ceaseless change and turmoil as new technological developments (e.g., the Internet) challenged everyone to reorient and reinvent themselves, often as a brand. Cultural transformation in the 18th century, however, was about more than just emerging economic reconfigurations. New, secular, free thought and rationalism openly challenged orthodoxies formerly imposed by religious and political institutions and demanded intellectual and entrepreneurial striving to participate meaningfully in charting new paths for progressive society purportedly no longer anchored statically in the past. Mishra goes on:

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence. [p. 89]

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection. [p. 90]

While most of the chapter describes Rousseau’s rejection and critique of 18th-century ethics, Mishra at one point depicts Rousseau arguing for instead of against something:

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country. [p. 92]

Notably absent from Mishra’s profile is the meme mistakenly applied to Rousseau’s diverse criticism: the noble savage. Rousseau praises provincial men (patriarchal orientation acknowledged) largely unspoilt by the corrupting influence of commercial, cosmopolitan society devoted to individual self-interest and amour propre, and his ideal (above) is uncompromising. Although Rousseau had potential to insinuate himself successfully in fashionable salons and academic posts, his real affinity was with the weak and downtrodden — the peasant underclass — who were mostly passed over by rapidly modernizing society. Others managed to raise their station in life above the peasantry to join the bourgeoisie (disambiguation needed on that term). Mishra’s description (via Rousseau) of this middle and upper middle class group provided my first real understanding of popular disdain many report toward bourgeois values using the derisive term bourgie (clearer when spoken than when written).

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

The Judaeo-Christian dictum “go forth, be fruitful, and multiply” (Genesis 1:28, translations vary) was taken to heart not only by Jews and Christians but by people everywhere resources allowed. Prior to the modern era, human population remained in check because, among other things, high rates of infant and child mortality, pandemics, and famine were commonplace. Now that modern medicine, hygiene, and health deliver far more children into adulthood (and thus their breeding years) and our fossil fuel energy binge allows us to overproduce and overreproduce, population has spiked. While some herald human flourishing (mere quantity, not quality) as an unmitigated good, our massive human population beggars the question: what to do with all the extra people? The American answer is already known: if they’re not productive citizens (read: labor for someone else’s profit), lock ’em up (ironically transforming them into profit centers using tax monies) or simply abandon them to live (and shit) on the streets of San Francisco or some other temperate, coastal city. If they’re foreigners competing for the same resources we (Americans) want for ourselves, well, just kill ’em (a different sort of disposal).

Those observations are really quite enough, ugly and obvious as they are. However, history isn’t yet done with us. Futurists warn that conditions will only worsen (well, duh!) as technological unemployment (robots and software soon to perform even more tasks that used to be handled by people paid money for their effort and expertise) causes more and more people to be tossed aside in venal pursuit of profit. Optimists and cheerleaders for the new technological utopia dystopia frequently offer as cold comfort that people with newfound time on their hands are free to become entrepreneurial or pursue creative endeavors. Never mind that basic needs (e.g., housing, food, clothing, and healthcare) must come first. The one thing that’s partially correct about the canard that everyone can magically transform themselves into small business owners or content creators is that we have become of nation of idlers fixated on entertainments of many varieties. That’s a real bottomless well. Some percentage (unknown by me) actually produces the content (TV shows, movies, music, books, blogs, journalism, YouTube channels, podcasts, social media feeds, video games, sports teams and competitions, etc.), all completing for attention, and those people are often rewarded handsomely if the medium produces giant subscription and revenues. Most of it is just digital exhaust. I also judge that most of us are merely part of the audience or have failed to go viral hit it big if indeed we have anything on offer in the public sphere. Of course, disposable time and income drives the whole entertainment complex. Doubtful folks living in burgeoning American tent cities contribute anything to that economic sector.

It’s sometimes said that a society can be measured by how it treats its weakest members. The European social contract (much derided in the U.S.) takes that notion seriously and supports the down-and-out. The American social contract typically blames those who are weak, often by no fault of their own (e.g., medical bankruptcy), and kicks them when they’re down. Consider just one common measure of a person: intelligence. Though there are many measures of intelligence, the standard is IQ, which is computational, linguistic, and abstract. It’s taboo to dwell too much on differences, especially when mapped onto race, gender, or nationality, so I won’t go there. However, the standard, conservative distribution places most people in the average between 90 and 110. A wider average between 81 (low average) and 119 (high average) captures even more people before a small percentage of outliers are found at the extremes. Of course, almost everyone thinks him- or herself squarely in the upper half. As one descends deeper into the lower half, it’s been found that IQ deficits mean such a person is unsuitable for most types of gainful employment and some are flatly unsuitable for any employment at all. What to do with those people? With U.S. population now just under 330 million, the lower half is roughly 165 million people! How many of those “useless eaters” are abandoned to their fates is hard to know, but it’s a far bigger number and problem than the ridiculous, unhelpful advice “learn to code” would suggest. The cruelty of the American social contract is plain to see.

Apologies for this overlong blog post. I know that this much text tries the patience of most readers and is well in excess of my customary 3–4 paragraphs.

Continuing my book blogging of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Chapter Two (subtitled “History’s Winners and Their Illusions”) focuses on the thought revolution that followed from the Enlightenment in Western Europe and its imitation in non-Western cultures, especially as manifested in the century leading to the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution (more narrowly a tax revolt with insistence on self-rule) preceded the French Revolution by slightly more than a decade, it’s really the French, whose motto liberté, égalité, fraternité came to prominence and defined an influential set of European values, who effectively challenged enthusiastic modernizers around the globe to try to catch up with the ascendant West.

However, almost as soon as this project appeared, i.e., attempting to transform ancien régime monarchies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Russia into something pseudo-European, critics arose who denounced the abandonment of tradition and centuries-old national identities. Perhaps they can be understood as the first wave of modern conservatism. Here is Mishra’s characterization:

Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking. [p. 48]

Aside: The phrase “rights-bearing individual” has obvious echoes with today’s SJWs and their poorly conceived demand for egalitarianism not just before the law but in social and economic outcomes. Although economic justice (totally out of whack with today’s extreme income and wealth inequality) is a worthy goal that aligns with idealized but not real-world Enlightenment values, SJW activism reinforces retrograde divisions of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Calls to level out all these questionable markers of identity have resulted in intellectual confusion and invalidation of large “privileged” and/or “unoppressed” groups such as white males of European descent in favor of oppressed minorities (and majorities, e.g., women) of all categories. Never mind that many of those same white males are often every bit as disenfranchised as others whose victimhood is paraded around as some sort virtue granting them authority and preferential treatment.

Modernization has not been evenly distributed around the globe, which accounts for countries even today being designated either First, Second, or Third World. An oft-used euphemism is “developing economy,” which translates to an invitation for wealthy First-World nations (or its corporations) to force their way in to exploit cheap labor and untapped natural resources. Indeed, as Mishra points out, the promise of joining First-World living standards (having diverged centuries ago) is markedly hollow:

… doubters of Western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies — or, most of the human population — might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment — manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods — the non-West also has no real prospect of catching up … [pp. 47-48]

That second paragraph is an unexpected acknowledgement that the earliest industrialized nations (France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) unwittingly put us on a path to self-annihilation only to be knowingly repeated and intensified by latecomers to industrialization. All those (cough) ecological disturbances are occurring right now, though the public has been lulled into complacency by temporary abundance, misinformation, under- and misreporting, and international political incompetence. Of course, ecological destruction is no longer merely the West’s trauma but a global catastrophe of the highest magnitude which is certainly in the process of catching up to us.

Late in Chapter Two, Mishra settles on the Crystal Palace exhibition space and utopian symbol, built in 1851 during the era of world’s fairs and mistaken enthusiasm regarding the myth of perpetual progress and perfectibility, as an irresistible embodiment of Western hubris to which some intellectual leaders responded with clear disdain. Although a marvelous technical feat of engineering prowess and demonstration of economic power (not unlike countries that host the Olympics — remember Beijing?), the Crystal Palace was also viewed as an expression of the sheer might of Western thought and its concomitant products. Mishra repeatedly quotes Dostoevsky, who visited the Crystal Palace in 1862 and described his visceral response to the place poignantly and powerfully:

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that here there is victory and triumph. You even begin vaguely to fear something. However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath. [p. 68]

And later, describing the “world-historical import” of the Crystal Palace:

Look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people humbly streaming here from all over the face of the earth. People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging onto this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is not to accept the material world as your ideal. [pp. 69–70]

The prophetic finality of the Crystal Palace thus presaged twentieth-century achievements and ideas (the so-called American Century) that undoubtedly eclipsed the awesome majesty of the Crystal Palace, e.g., nuclear fission and liberal democracy’s purported victory over Soviet Communism (to name only two). Indeed, Mishra begins the chapter with a review of Americans declarations of the end of history, i.e., having reached final forms of political, social, and economic organization that are now the sole model for all nations to emulate. The whole point of the chapter is that such pronouncements are illusions with strong historical antecedents that might have cautioned us not to leap to unwarranted conclusions or to perpetuate a soul-destroying regime hellbent on extinguishing all alternatives. Of course, as Gore Vidal famously quipped, “Americans never learn; it’s part of our charm.”

 

Third version of this topic. Whereas the previous two were about competing contemporary North American ways of knowing, this one is broader in both time and space.

The May 2019 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a fascinating review of Christina Thompson’s book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (2019). Beyond the puzzle itself — how did Polynesian people migrate to, settle, and populate the far-flung islands of the Central and South Pacific? — the review hits upon one of my recurring themes on this blog, namely, that human cognition is plastic enough to permit highly divergent ways of knowing.

The review (and book?) is laden with Eurocentric detail about the “discovery” of closely related Polynesian cultures dispersed more widely (geographically) than any other culture prior to the era of mass migration. Indeed, the reviewer chides the author at one point for transforming Polynesia from a subject in its own right into an exotic object of (Western) fascination. This distorted perspective is commonplace and follows from the earlier “discovery” and colonization of North America as though it were not already populated. Cartographers even today are guilty of this Eurocentrism, relegating “empty” expanses of the Pacific Ocean to irrelevance in maps when in fact the Pacific is “the dominant feature of the planet” and contains roughly twenty-five thousand islands (at current sea level? — noting that sea level was substantially lower during the last ice age some 13,000 years but due to rise substantially by the end of this century and beyond, engulfing many of the islands now lying dangerously close to sea level). Similar distortions are needed to squash the spherical (3D) surface of the globe onto planar (2D) maps (e.g., the Mercator projection, which largely ignores the Pacific Ocean in favor of continents; other projections shown here) more easily conceptualized (for Westerners) in terms of coordinate geometry using latitude and longitude (i.e., the Cartesian plane).

The review mentions the familiar dichotomy of grouping a hammer, saw, hatchet, and log in terms of abstract categories (Western thought) vs. utility or practicality (non-Western). Exploration of how different ways of knowing manifest is, according to the review, among the more intellectually exciting parts of the book. That’s the part I’m latching onto. For instance, the review offers this:

Near the middle of Sea People, Thompson explores the ramification of Polynesia as, until contact, an oral culture with “an oral way of seeing.” While writing enables abstraction, distancing, and what we generally call objectivity, the truth of oral cultures is thoroughly subjective. Islands aren’t dots on a map seen from the sky but destinations one travels to in the water.

This is the crux of the puzzle of Polynesians fanning out across the Pacific approximately one thousand years ago. They had developed means of wayfinding in canoes and outriggers without instruments or maps roughly 500 years prior to Europeans crossing the oceans in sailing ships. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the evidence, but abstraction and objectivity as a particular way of knowing, bequeathed to Western Europe via the Enlightenment and development of the scientific method, stunted or delayed exploration of the globe precisely because explorers began with a god’s eye view of the Earth from above rather than from the surface (object vs. subject). In contrast, quoting here from the book rather than the review, Polynesians used

a system known as etak, in which they visualize a “reference island,” — which is usually a real island but may also be imaginary — off to one side of the path they are following, about midway between their starting point and their destination. As the journey progresses, this island “moves” under each of the stars in the star path [situated near the horizon rather than overhead], while the canoe in which the voyagers are traveling stays still. Of course, the navigators know that it is the canoe and not the islands that are moving, but this is the way they conceptualize the voyage.

Placing oneself at the center of the world or universe — at least for the purpose of navigation — is a conceptual pose Westerners discarded when heliocentrism gradually replaced geocentrism. (Traveling using GPS devices ironically places the traveler back at the center of the map with terrain shifting around the vehicle, but it’s a poor example of wayfinding precisely because the traveler fobs the real work onto the device and likely possesses no real understanding or skill traversing the terrain besides following mechanical instructions.) While we Westerners might congratulate ourselves for a more accurate, objective orientation to the stars, its unwitting limitations are worth noting. Recent discoveries regarding human prehistory, especially megalithic stone construction accomplished with techniques still unknown and flatly impossible with modern technology, point to the existence of other ways of knowing lost to contemporary human cultures steadily triangulating on and conforming to Western thought (through the process of globalization). Loss of diversity of ways of knowing creates yet another sort of impoverishment that can only be barely glimpsed since most of us are squarely inside the bubble. Accordingly, it’s not for nothing that some unusually sensitive critics of modernity suggest we’re entering a new Dark Age.

 

Richard Wolff gave a fascinating talk at Google offices in New York City, which is embedded below:

This talk was published nearly two years ago, demonstrating that we refuse to learn or make adjustments we need to order society better (and to avoid disaster and catastrophe). No surprise there. (Also shows how long it takes me to get to things.) Critics of capitalism and the democracy we pretend to have in the U.S. are many. Wolff criticizes effectively from a Marxist perspective (Karl Marx being among the foremost of those critics). For those who don’t have the patience to sit through Wolff’s 1.5-hour presentation, let me draw out a few details mixed with my own commentary (impossible to separate, sorry; sorry, too, for the profusion of links no one follows).

The most astounding thing to me is that Wolff admitted he made it through higher education to complete a Ph.D. in economics without a single professor assigning Marx to read or study. Quite the set of blinders his teachers wore. Happily, Wolff eventually educated himself on Marx. Multiple economic forms have each had their day: sharing, barter, feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism (including subcategories anarcho-capitalism and laissez-faire economics), Keynesian regulation, socialism (and its subcategory communism), etc. Except for the first, prevalent among indigent societies living close to subsistence, all involve hierarchy and coercion. Some regard those dynamics as just, others as unjust. It’s worth noting, too, that no system is pure. For instance, the U.S. has a blend of market capitalism and socialism. Philanthropy also figures in somehow. However, as social supports in the U.S. continue to be withdrawn and the masses are left to fend for themselves, what socialism existed as a hidden-in-plain-sight part of our system is being scaled down, privatized, foisted on charitable organizations, and/or driven out of existence.

The usual labor arrangement nearly all of us know — working for someone else for a wage/salary — is defined in Marxism as exploitation (not the lay understanding of the term) for one simple reason: all economic advantage from excess productivity of labor accrues to the business owner(s) (often a corporation). That’s the whole point of capitalism: to exploit (with some acknowledged risk) the differential between the costs of labor and materials (and increasingly, information) vs. the revenue they produce in order to prosper and grow. To some, exploitation is a dirty word, but understood from an analytical point of view, it’s the bedrock of all capitalist labor relationships. Wolff also points out that real wages in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) have been flat for more than 40 years while productivity has climbed steadily. The differential profit (rather immense over time) has been pocketed handily by owners (billionaire having long-since replaced millionaire as an aspiration) while the average citizen/consumer has kept pace with the rising standard of living by adding women to the workforce (two or more earners per family instead of one), racking up debt, and deferring retirement.

Wolff’s antidote or cure to the dynamic of late-stage capitalism (nearly all the money being controlled by very few) is to remake corporate ownership, where a board of directors without obligation to workers makes all the important decisions and takes all the profit, into worker-owned businesses that practice direct democracy and distribute profits more equitably. How closely this resembles a coop (read: cooperative), commune, or kibbutz I cannot assess. Worker-owned businesses, no longer corporations, also differ significantly from how “socializing a business” is generally understood, i.e., a business or sector being taken over and run by the government. The U.S. Postal Service is one example. (Curiously, that last link has a .com suffix instead of .gov.) Public K–12 education operated by the states is another. As I understand it, this difference (who owns and runs an enterprise) is what lies behind democratic socialism being promoted in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is aligning his socialist politics with worker ownership of the means of production. Wolff also promotes this approach through his book and nonprofit organization Democracy at Work. How different these projects may be lies beyond my cursory analysis.

Another alternative to capitalist hegemony is a resource-based economy, which I admit I don’t really understand. Its rank utopianism is difficult to overlook, since it doesn’t fit at all with human history, where we muddle through without much of a plan or design except perhaps for those few who discover and devise ways to game systems for self-aggrandizement and personal benefit while leaving everyone else in the lurch. Peter Joseph, founder of The Zeitgeist Movement, is among the promoters of a resource-based economy. One of its chief attributes is the disuse of money. Considering central banks (the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.) that issue fiat currency worth increasingly little are being challenged rather effectively by cryptocurrencies based on nothing beyond social consensus, it’s interesting to contemplate an alternative to astronomical levels of wealth (and its inverse: debt) that come as a result of being trapped within the fiat monetary system that benefits so very few people.

Since this is a doom blog (not much of an admission, since it’s been obvious for years now), I can’t finish up without observing that none of these economic systems appears to take into account that we’re on a countdown to self-annihilation as we draw down the irreplaceable energy resources that make the whole shebang go. It’s possible the contemplated resource-based economy does so, but I rather doubt it. A decade or more ago, much of the discussion was about peak oil, which shortly thereafter gave way to peak everything. Shortages of materials such as helium, sand, and rare earths don’t figure strongly in public sentiment so long as party balloons, construction materials, and cell phones continue to be widely available. However, ongoing destruction of the biosphere through the primary activities of industrial civilization (e.g., mining, chemical-based agriculture, and steady expansion of human habitation into formerly wild nature) and the secondary effects of anthropogenic climate change (still hotly contested but more and more obvious with each passing season) and loss of biodiversity and biomass is catching up to us. In economics, this destruction is an externality conveniently ignored or waved away while profits can be made. The fullness of time will provide proof that we’ve enjoyed an extraordinary moment in history where we figured out how to exploit a specific sort of abundance (fossil fuels) with the ironic twist that that very exploitation leads to the collapse of the civilization it spawned and supported. No one planned it this way, really, and once the endgame came into view, nothing much could be done to forestall it. So we continue apace with self-destruction while celebrating its glamor and excess as innovation and progress. If only Wolff would incorporate that perspective, too.