Sunday, February 26, 2012

The hope of things to come...

It’s become quite fashionable to bash utopia. 

The notion that a society could be made more ideal or better organized, that social ills can be corrected by changing the structure of a society, or that life could be made somehow better were the general external circumstances of that life somehow changed—well, how absurd, yeah?

Most criticisms leveled against utopianism are generally in the context of state or centrally planned societal changes.  The great failures of the communist project of the soviets are fertile ground for examples—the endless five-year plans, the collectivization of farming, forced internal migrations, gulags.

Skeptics such as John Gray (an endlessly wonderful read, regardless of how much I always seem to disagree with his conclusions), in his Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,  have also labeled Nazism as an utopian project—the work/concentration camps, eugenics, eloquent internal propaganda all in the service of a grand, “utopian” Aryan future.

And the failures of past central planning is often a repeated criticism of modern “liberal” projects—universal health care, wealth redistribution, compulsory recycling/conservation.  Two almost reflexive complaint seems to echo back against any attempts to re-introduce utopian ideals into societal discourse—the first is that central governments are either incapable or inefficient at social change; the second, that “you can’t change human nature.”

I’m completely uninterested in the first response, except to concede a few quick points and dismiss it otherwise.  Central powers—states—are very, very bad at understanding the repercussions of their projects.  Many humorous and horrific examples abound (besides the soviets), and I’d strongly recommend Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James Scott for an excellent perspective on this problem.  But on the other hand, few would ever deny the awesome/aweful power of a central authority to radically change society, whether they intend to or not—think Eisenhower’s highway projects laying the groundwork for the American car-culture (I throw up in my mouth a little when I write those two words together) or the relationship between taxation levels and income/cultural disparities after the Reagan years.

But again, I’m more interested in the second criticism of utopianism—that you cannot change human nature.  A wise friend once pointed out to me the absurdity of the term—human nature is an abyss into which we can dump anything we want in and believe it to be filled.  Depending on who you’re talking to at any given time, humans are “naturally” selfish, greedy, kind, caring, innovative, lazy, mimicking, brutal, religious, curious, close-minded, tribalistic, unrealistic, rational, irrational, sexual, depraved, artistic, noble, or, really, anything you want us to be. 

We are all that, and more.  But unfortunately, even the most rigidly careful thinkers fall into the dangerous habit of asserting that humans are, “by nature,” something or other, only to then fall back into the abyss of obstinate faith.  That is, amongst many behavioural theorists, we are “wired” to be self-interested.  In the face of conflicting evidence, this postulate can then be extended into a more complex theory—we do “selfless things” when they will, in turn, serve our self-interest.

I do not mean to attempt to argue against the whole of evolutionary psychology on these grounds, only to point again to the abyssal void of what human nature is or is not.  The most rational (and probably frustratingly meaningless to some) assertion about human nature is that we are “all of the above, and probably more.” The notion that the experiences, habits, personalities and desires of billions of individual organisms can be reduced to a few base truths seems ambitious at the very least. 

But let’s go back to communism and utopianism.  That Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, or any of the rest of them went up against “human nature” and failed is, ultimately, a weak argument.  There’s an overabundance of failures and massacres to accuse them on—criminalizing the dreaming of a fairer society would put us all into prison. 

And there are a host of other utopian tendencies which do not receive a similar treatment.  The ideal of a society organized by rational self-interest, free of government interference is, itself, a utopian project.  So, too, is the exuberant celebration of a soon-to-be freer, more interconnected society by means of back-lit machines through which we’ll all soon be able to access any information we want.  A greener capitalism, a world free of diseases, societies unrestrained by religious dogma, increased technological advance—the popular utopianism spewed from every media source is no less ambitious and no less unfounded than any of the previous projects. 

But despite the fact that I don’t buy any of the aforementioned utopias for a second, I disagree with John Gray and others—I find it lazy to dismiss a belief merely on the basis that it’s utopian, and useless. 
What’s important here, I think, is that every utopian ideal, the ones we fear, the ones we adore, and the ones we embrace without recognizing them all come down to belief.  We cannot know the future.  We cannot predict a freer society or accelerated technological advance (sorry— singularists and transhumanists—you’re as dependant on faith as the rest of us).  There’s an exuberant optimism required to posit future answers to current societal problems, and as specious as I think it is of someone to assert that we’ll find a way to replace our dwindling fossil fuels with an equally abundant, as-of-yet unseen energy source, I won’t judge him or her on hope. 

There’s something else I’ll judge them on, though, and this I think is a better metric for evaluating ideals and ideologies.  A utopianism which says “another world is possible” (the chant of the anti-capitalist , “anti-globalisation” protestors) at least is not advocating for the continuation of a current problem in hopes of an as of yet unseen but messianic solution.  But the unstated chants of the unnamed priests of the unacknowledged utopia we’re already in, that of modern industrialized capitalism, urges that the mechanisms causing the problems of society (global warming, increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, dwindling fossil fuels) be allowed to continue until the coming of our long hoped-for, long prayed-for salvation.  Worse, and more confusingly--no man knoweth the hour—we need not less capitalism, less technological advance, less energy expenditure, but more.  Just a little more faith, a little more devotion, a little more hard work, a flatter screen, a better car and a more expensive light bulb and we shall see the promised land

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: A History of Pagan Europe, by Prudence Jones

The question of paganism in europe doesn't present itself immediately as a matter of scandal, though the relative absence of histories on the subject does at least hint at the controversy of the topic. Usually relegated to Folkloric studies (with their classifications and archetypes) the issue of paganism is miserably under-treated.

Contention exists over the very definition of pagan--the general "western-academic" consensus is that it is a useless or over-used word, stolen by new-age neopagans to mean something somehow universal. History usually attempts to draw straight lines through time, successions of tendencies and thinkers one after the other until the present (or until the death of the idea), and is more than happy to this sort of thing as long as funding for "history of science" grants continue. Everything that can fit into the grand-narrative is important (or, conversely, nothing that has already been used in the grand-narratives matters), leaving the question of pagan/indigenous beliefs of europe to the celtic-tapestry lot (of which, i'm told, i belong).

So, what then to make of the libraries and archives full of catholic denunciations of "pagan" practices remaining all the way into the 19th century? Offerings at well, shouting at the moon, refusing to eat certain animals or drinking certain things on certain days. Injunctions against paying any attention to the phase of the moon at all are rife. The Catholic (and its reformist-children) church has long tried to uproot these practises, and as facile as it might be to attribute such tirades to religious hysteria, the fact people that some people still throw spilled salt over their shoulder or that most of old bretons in northwest france still tie ribbons over "fairie wells" (i've seen it personally) suggests that the pagan-tendency was never fully uprooted.

So, come we now to Jones and Pennick. Their book is an inadequate (but welcome) addition to the shelf that so far only contains books like The Golden Bough. Slim (288 pages), well-researched, but unsatisfying. I don't mean to be hard on them, seeing as how they couldn't seem to secure any sort of funding whatsoever for their subject matter (and received rather vicious reviews by folklorists for disturbing their comfortable calculus). But it's too small, a tiny drop in an drained pool. Still, since it's something at all, and more than interesting to read, i highly suggest it. Work on the lithuanian pagan kingdom is appreciated (not original, but most wouldn't know where else to turn), but the sense that they're screaming into the wind is difficult to shake. They know they're not wrong, they're not being foolish, and yet they seem to apologise almost--take us seriously, they almost say, even though the reader probably already is. I did, i still do. But having read other accounts alluding to the same periods, i can't help but think they could use a little more confidence.

One thing they do well, however, is begin to place european paganism within the context of other paganisms. One of the biggest objections to anyone beginning to address the issue is the right-wing tendency of some european and anglo paganisms: every white-boy software coder was pretty certain he was scottish after Braveheart, and not a few of them used this new-found heritage to argue against other indigenous-rights movements (scots were an oppressed people, too, and so why are all the american First Nations complaining?). There's a way out of this, and it seems humorously simple, though one needs to look elsewhere (I suggest India: Chakrabarty and Leela Ghandi). J&P begin some of the work to link paganisms outside of racial/tribal groups (race didn't exist as a notion till the 19th century--is no one reading Hannah Arendt anymore?), and a lot more could be done, but again we come back to the question: why should J&P have to apologise for a bunch of white idiots at Microsoft calling themselves "goths in the traditional germanic sense"? 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: The Origins of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood

 This is a repost of a review I wrote elsewhere, with minor editing.

While I'm still waiting for someone to do a treatise on the alchemical language employed by Marx to explain Capital and the magic the Capitalists/Bourgeoisie employ ("everything that is solid melts into air..."), I've had to settle instead with general clarifications.

So in the meantime, TOoC was quite useful. This is the second time i've read it, though for some reason the first reading (about 6 years ago) really must have been inadequate. Or, rather say, I had at that earlier point less exposure to most of the historians and economic theorists she uses and conflicts. I'd heard of E.P. Thompson but never read him; Weber was un-opened on my bookshelf, and I hadn't even read Das Kapital yet. But none of that adequately explains why, on the second reading, i held in my hands an entirely different book.

Her premise is simple: The birth of Capitalism was a recent historical event. Within that statement, however, exists a myriad of complications, and it's a minority view.

The typical story of Capitalism goes like this: after massive european plagues, the printing press and the Reformation, so many people lived in towns instead of feudal arrangements that we all became somehow liberated to our own self-interest, investing surplus funds ("primal accumulation") into our own improvement and, with enough people doing so, the rate of "technological progress" sped up to make most of us not need to raise our own food anymore. We all became Capitalists (after a few beheadings in France) and spread the good word to the rest of the world, constantly making life better for ourselves and others, though we were a bit sloppy and maybe shouldn't have burned so much coal.

Capitalism in this scenario is a natural outgrowth, then, a step along the way (or the Final Step, if you aren't a Marxist) towards democracy and space exploration and flat-screen tv's and kidney transplants. Marxists point to the exploitation within the system and suggest another step (Communism, or central-planned economies, where our lives will finally be better), but either way, Progress will win out (or our cities will flood).

The very lazy or the very Ayn-Randian posit Capitalism as already-always existing, merely waiting to be freed by oppressive trade barriers (like Feudalism), but their further arguments still usually follow the aforementioned pattern. Evolutionary/Behavioural/Psychologist sorts also sometimes get into this, coming up with all sorts of Scientific (tm) ways of explaining how well natural selection and Capitalism go hand in hand.

But Wood has none of it. For her, Capitalism began in England when rent for farms became a market, something which had never happened in recorded history. Landlords, with the death of feudalism (she argues that Capitalism did not destroy Feudalism, against most histories), had to collect "surplus" from tenants in the form of monied-rents without "extra-economic" coercion (i.e., taxes, levies, outright violence) because they had lost much of their legal/juridical power. Markets (and trade) had always existed, but economic coercion had not (Florence and the Dutch Republic were both massive urban areas with huge markets without Capitalism--even most of the "Commercialists" agree to this and call them "failed transitions").

With the pressure from landlords now to collect surplus money, the farmers on their land found themselves needing to grow even more than before (previous feudal arrangements were typically one-third of all produce, but now the amount was set, regardless of what markets provided). Farmers suddenly had to compete with each other for profit, which destabilised prices and made some people lose their farms. The landlords, in response, could charge more for the land of the "productive" farmers, could re-lease unrented land to them, thus rewarding the successful competitor taking from the loser their very access to self-reproduction (substinence, etc.). Those dispossessed farmers became reliant on the market now for everything they used to be able to make for themselves before, thus creating "consumer-goods" markets.

The key-word for her is Imperative. Farmers didn't take advantage of "opportunities," they responded to imperatives (grow/make more or lose your land). Landowners also found themselves no longer in a voluntary position--once one landowner can't farm out his land to tenants, his land is threatened by other landowners who can. Markets previously were governed not just by supply and demand, but community/social obligations and restrictions, but the pressure of so much displacement and imperative to earn/invest violently reduced these restrictions (Enclosure had happened before, but not with so much speed and legislative authority).

But therein lies another complication. Any Free-Market apologist will tell you that the state gets in the way of the market, though they still consistently rely upon central authorities to ensure the right conditions for their profit-taking. Without police, no one's around to arrest the thieves or squatters, because the coercion of Capitalism is pristinely Economic. Political Coercion must come from outside of it, must serve it, and must not get too much in the way. The English State's willingness to serve this role ensured capitalism's naissance (consider Foucault's point in Discipline & Punish about the number of "economic-crime" laws--and their commensurate violence-of-punishment--which did not exist before Capitalism took hold).

Capitalism didn't take hold elsewhere for a little while, nor did it "spontaneously generate" anywhere else. Other states responded to the pressure eventually to the point we're at now, but it's vital for her that we continue to see the exact genesis point (in england, in the rural areas).

She makes a few other arguments, some of which almost seem extraneous and besides-the-point. Placing the birth of Capitalism in agriculture, rather than the cities, places into doubt the traditional/marxist understanding of the Bourgeoisie. She's right to point out that the bourgeoisie in France were not fighting for capitalism, but rather access to extra-economic coercion (offices, titles, etc. that would allow the professionals of the city to collect taxes).

I'm willing to accept this, but I don't like the consequences of her final conclusions. She separates the French and English Enlightenment (England had Locke--arguing that natives should be forced off their land because they refused to put it to productive use; France had Voltaire and Rousseau), and she can do this to a point, but by the time of the French Revolution i don't think the differences continue. She makes a great argument for separating "modernity" from "capitalism," believes as I do that most food shortages are due to capitalist profit-imperative, not productive capacity, and she almost completely destroys the notion of Progress.

But something suddenly stops her. The last two chapters find her shredding through her entire argument, leaving the pieces on the floor for us to paste back together in her search for some way to keep Human/Universal Rights as Progress.  She rejects much of the "post-modern" arguments about the meta-narrative concerning Capitalism because human rights/western secularism is something too important for her to destroy. She's almost there, she's about to axe them, and then you hear her gasp as she suddenly realises she's throwing out what she thinks is the baby in the muddy water of the bath.
  It's not a baby, actually, there never was one. Capitalism used her tub as a toilet, and, perhaps exhausted from her brilliant intellectual work, she mistook one of the undissolved turds (the "progress" of human-rights") for a drowning child.