Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

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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 progress 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 that central banks (the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.) 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 led 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.

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

I started reading Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017). Had expected to read Sapiens (2014) first but its follow-up came into my possession instead. My familiarity with Harari’s theses and arguments stem from his gadfly presence on YouTube being interviewed or giving speeches promoting his books. He’s a compelling yet confounding thinker, and his distinctive voice in my mind’s ear lent to my reading the quality of an audiobook. I’ve only read the introductory chapter (“A New Human Agenda”) so far, the main argument being this:

We have managed to bring famine, plague and war under control thanks largely to our phenomenal economic growth, which provides us with abundant food, medicine, energy and raw materials. Yet this same growth destabilises the ecological equilibrium of the planet in myriad ways, which we have only begun to explore … Despite all the talk of pollution, global warming and climate change, most countries have yet to make any serious economic or political sacrifices to improve the situation … In the twenty-first century, we shall have to do better if we are to avoid catastrophe. [p. 20]

“Do better”? Harari’s bland understatement of the catastrophic implications of our historical moment is risible. Yet as a consequence of having (at least temporarily) brought three major historical pestilences (no direct mention of the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) under administrative, managerial, and technical control (I leave that contention unchallenged), Harari states rather over-confidently — forcefully even — that humankind is now turning its attention and ambitions toward different problems, namely, mortality (the fourth of the Four Horsemen and one of the defining features of the human condition), misery, and divinity.

Harari provides statistical support for his thesis (mere measurement offered as indisputable evidence — shades of Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now), none of which I’m in a position to refute. However, his contextualization, interpretation, and extrapolation of trends purportedly demonstrating how humans will further bend the arc of history strike me as absurd. Harari also misses the two true catalyzing factors underlying growth and trends that have caused history to go vertical: (1) a fossil-fuel energy binge of roughly two and one-half centuries that peaked more than a decade ago and (2) improved information and material flows and processing that enabled managerial and bureaucratic functions to transcend time and space or at least lessen their constraints on human activity dramatically. James Beniger addresses information flow and processing in his book The Control Revolution (1989). Many, many others have provided in-depth analyses of energy uses (or inputs) because, contrary to the familiar song lyric, it’s energy that makes the world go round. No one besides Harari (to my knowledge but I’m confident some lamebrained economist agrees with Harari) leaps to the unwarranted conclusion that economic growth is the principal forcing factor of the last 2–3 centuries.

I’ve taken issue with Harari before (here and here) and will not repeat those arguments. My impression of Homo Deus, now that I’ve got 70 pages under my belt, is that Harari wants to have it both ways: vaguely optimistic (even inspirational and/or aspirational) regarding future technological developments (after all, who doesn’t want the marvels and wonders we’ve been ceaselessly teased and promised?) yet precautionary because those very developments will produce disruptive and unforeseeable side effects (black swans) we can’t possibly yet imagine. To his credit, Harari’s caveats regarding unintended consequences are plain and direct. For instance, one of the main warnings is that the way we treat nonhuman species is the best model for how we humans will in turn be treated when superhumans or strong AI appear, which Harari believes is inevitable so long as we keep tinkering. Harari also indicates that he’s not advocating for any of these anticipated developments but is merely mapping them as likely outcomes of human restlessness and continued technological progress.

Harari’s disclaimers do not convince me; his writing is decidedly Transhumanist in character. In the limited portion I’ve read, Harari comes across far more like “golly, gee willikers” at human cleverness and potential than as someone seeking to slam on the brakes before we innovate ourselves out of relevance or existence. In fact, by focusing on mortality, misery, and divinity as future projects, Harari gets to indulge in making highly controversial (and fatuous) predictions regarding one set of transformations that can happen only if the far more dire and immediate threats of runaway global warming and nonlinear climate change don’t first lead to the collapse of industrial civilization and near-term extinction of humans alongside most other species. My expectation is that this second outcome is far more likely than anything contemplated by Harari in his book.

Update: Climate chaos has produced the wettest winter, spring, and summer on record, which shows no indication of abating. A significant percentage of croplands in flooded regions around the globe is unplanted, and those that are planted are stunted and imperiled. Harari’s confidence that we had that famine problem licked is being sorely tested.

Some while back, Scott Adams (my general disdain for him noted but unexpanded, since I’m not in the habit of shitting on people), using his knowledge of hypnosis, began pushing the string selling the narrative that our Commander-in-Chief is cannily adept at the art of persuasion. I, for one, am persuaded by neither Adams nor 45 but must admit that many others are. Constant shilling for control of narratives by agents of all sorts could not be more transparent (for me at least), rendering the whole enterprise null. Similarly, when I see an advertisement (infrequently, I might add, since I use ad blockers and don’t watch broadcast TV or news programs), I’m rarely inclined to seek more information or make a purchase. Once in a long while, an ad creeps through my defenses and hits one of my interests, and even then, I rarely respond because, duh, it’s an ad.

In the embedded video below, Stuart Ewen describes how some learned to exploit a feature (not a bug) in human cognition, namely, appeals to emotion that overwhelm rational response. The most obvious, well-worn example is striking fear into people’s hearts and minds to convince them of an illusion of safety necessitating relinquishing civil liberties and/or fighting foreign wars.

The way Ewen uses the term consciousness differs from the way I use it. He refers specifically to opinion- and decision-making (the very things vulnerable to manipulation) rather than the more generalized and puzzling property of having an individual identity or mind and with it self-awareness. In fact, Ewen uses the terms consciousness industry and persuasion industry instead of public relations and marketing to name those who spin information and thus public discourse. At some level, absolutely everyone is guilty of seeking to persuade others, which again is a basic feature of communication. (Anyone negotiating the purchase of, say, a new or used car faces the persuasion of the sales agent with some skepticism.) What turns it into something maniacal is using lies and fabrication to advance agendas against the public interest, especially where public opinion is already clear.

Ewen also points to early 20th-century American history, where political leaders and marketers were successful in manipulating mass psychology in at least three ways: 1. drawing the pacifist U.S. public into two world wars of European origin, 2. transforming citizens into consumers, thereby saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive endgame (creeping up on us yet again), and 3. suppressing emergent collectivism, namely, socialism. Of course, unionism as a collectivist institution still gained considerable strength but only within the larger context of capitalism, e.g., achieving the American Dream in purely financial terms.

So getting back to Scott Adams’ argument, the notion that the American public is under some form of mass hypnosis (persuasion) and that 45 is the master puppeteer is perhaps half true. Societies do sometimes go mad and fall under the spell of a mania or cult leader. But 45 is not the driver of the current episode, merely the embodiment. I wouldn’t say that 45 figured out anything because that awards too much credit to presumed understanding and planning. Rather, he worked out (accidentally and intuitively — really by default considering his job in 2016) that his peculiar self-as-brand could be applied to politics by treating it all as reality TV, which by now everyone knows is its own weird unreality the same way professional wrestling is fundamentally unreal. (The term political theater applies here.) He demonstrated a knack (at best) for keeping the focus firmly on himself and driving ratings (abetted by the mainstream media that had long regarded him as a clown or joke), but those objectives were never really in service of a larger political vision. In effect, the circus brought to town offers its own bizarre constructed narrative, but its principle characteristic is gawking, slack-jawed, made-you-look narcissism, not any sort of proper guidance or governance.

Several politicians on the U.S. national stage have emerged in the past few years as firebrands of new politics and ideas about leadership — some salutary, others less so. Perhaps the quintessential example is Bernie Sanders, who identified himself as Socialist within the Democratic Party, a tacit acknowledgement that there are no electable third-party candidates for high office thus far. Even 45’s emergence as a de facto independent candidate within the Republican Party points to the same effect (and at roughly the same time). Ross Perot and Ralph Nader came closest in recent U.S. politics to establishing viable candidacies outside the two-party system, but their ultimate failures only reinforce the rigidity of modern party politics; it’s a closed system.

Those infusing energy and new (OK, in truth, they’re old) ideas into this closed system are intriguing. By virtue of his immediate name/brand recognition, Bernie Sanders can now go by his single given name (same is true of Hillary, Donald, and others). Supporters of Bernie’s version of Democratic Socialism are thus known as Bernie Bros, though the term is meant pejoratively. Considering his age, however, Bernie is not widely considered a viable presidential candidate in the next election cycle. Among other firebrands, I was surprised to find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to simply as AOC) described in the video embedded below as a Democratic Socialist but without any reference to Bernie (“single-handedly galvanized the American people”):

Despite the generation(s) gap, young adults had no trouble supporting Bernie three years ago but appear to have shifted their ardent support to AOC. Yet Bernie is still relevant and makes frequent statements demonstrating how well he understands the failings of the modern state, its support of the status quo, and the cult of personality behind certain high-profile politicians.

As I reflect on history, it occurs to me that many of the major advances in society (e.g., abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, equal rights and abortion, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War) occurred not because our government led us to them but because the American people forced the issues. The most recent examples of the government yielding to the will of the people are gay marriage and cannabis/hemp legalization (still underway). I would venture that Johnson and Nixon were the last U.S. presidents who experienced palpable fear of the public. (Claims that Democrats are afraid of AOC ring hollow — so far.) As time has worn on, later presidents have been confident in their ability to buffalo the public or at least to use the power of the state to quell unrest (e.g., the Occupy movement). (Modern means of crowd control raise serious questions about the legitimacy of any government that would use them against its own citizens. I would include enemy combatants, but that is a separate issue.) In contrast with salutary examples of the public using its disruptive power over a recalcitrant government are arguably more examples where things went haywire rather badly. Looking beyond the U.S., the French Reign of Terror and the Bolsheviks are the two examples that leap immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. The pattern appears to be a populist ideology that takes root and turns virulent and violent followed by consolidation of power by those who mange to survive the inevitable purge of dissidents.

I bring this up because we’re in a period of U.S. history characterized by populist ideological possession on both sides (left/right) of the political continuum, though politics ought to be better understood as a spectrum. Extremism has again found a home (or several), and although the early stages appear to be mild or harmless, I fear that a charismatic leader might unwittingly succeed in raising a mob. As the saying goes (from the Indiana Jones movie franchise), “You are meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend,” to which I would add cannot control. Positioning oneself at the head of a movement or rallying behind such an opportunist may feel like the right thing to do but could easily and quickly veer into wildly unintended consequences. How many times in history has that already occurred?

For a time after the 2008 financial collapse, skyscraper projects in Chicago came to a dead halt, mostly due to dried-up financing. My guess (since I don’t know with any reliability) is that much the same obtained worldwide. However, the game appears to be back on, especially in New York City, one of few cities around the globe where so-called “real money” tends to pool and collect. Visual Capitalist has an interesting infographic depicting changes to the NYC skyline every 20 years. The number of supertalls topping 1,000 feet expected by 2020 is quite striking.

Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

The accompanying text admits that NYC is left in the dust by China, specifically, the Pearl River Delta Megacity, which includes Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Macau, and others. As I’ve written before, the mad rush to build (earning ridiculous, absurd, imaginary prestige points awarded by and to exactly no one) takes no apparent notice of a slo-mo crack-up in the way modern societies organize and fund themselves. The new bear market might give one … um, pause.

Also left in the dust is Chicago, home of the original skyscraper. Since the 2008 collapse, Chicago’s most ambitious project, the ill-fated Chicago Spire (a/k/a the Fordham Spire) was abandoned despite a big hole dug in the ground and some foundation work completed. An absence of completed prestige projects since 2008 means Chicago has been lapped several times over by NYC, not that anyone is counting. The proposed site of the Chicago Spire is too enticing, however — just inside Lake Shore Drive at the mouth of the Chicago River — for it to be dormant for long. Indeed, a press release last year (escaped my attention at the time) announced redevelopment of the site, and a slick website is operating for now (linked in the past to similar sites that went abandoned along with their subject projects). Also reported late last year, Chicago appears to have rejoined the game in earnest, with multiple projects already under construction and others in the planning/approval phases.

So if hiatus was called the last time we crashed financially (a regular occurrence, I note), it seems we’ve called hiatus on the hiatus and are back in a mad, futile race to remake modernity into gleaming vertical cities dotting the globe. Such hubris and exuberance might be intoxicating to technophiles, but I’m reminded of a observation (can’t locate a quote, sorry) to the effect that civilizations’ most extravagant projects are undertaken just before their collapses. Our global civilization is no different.