Category: Politics

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

So many problems, however infinitely varied they first appear, turn out to be matters of money.  I can’t tell you how much this offends me.  The value of money is a scam perpetrated by those who have it over those who don’t;  It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes gone global.  If chimps used money and we didn’t, we wouldn’t admire it.  We’d find it irrational and primitive.  Delusional.  And why gold?  Chimps barter with meat.  The value of meat is self-evident.

The world runs on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery.  People know it, but they don’t mind that they don’t see.  Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

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WHAT A WAY TO GO: LIFE AT THE END OF EMPIRE

BEYOND CIVILISATION

For want of a meme, a civilization was lost

One can imagine how desperately the pontiffs, potentates, dynasts, princes, pendragons, princelings, rajahs, hierophants, priests, priestesses, and palace guards of all these tottering civilizations must have desired to implant in the minds of their vacillating subjects this very simple concept:Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.

It goes without saying, however, that implanting alone isn’t enough. To take effect, a meme must be accepted without question. You can’t talk people into accepting an absurd idea like this one on the spur of the moment. They have to hear it from birth. It has to come to them from every direction and be buried in every communication, the way it is with us.

All these peoples started out believing that the best way to live is by growing all your own food. Why else would they become full-time farmers? They started out that way and went on that way for a long time. But then some very predictable things began to happen. For example, the Maya, the Olmec, and the people of Teotihuacán became rigidly stratified into wealthy, all-powerful elites and impoverished, powerless masses, who naturally did all the grunt work that made these civilizations magnificent. The masses will put up with this miserable life—we know that!—but they inevitably begin to get restless. We know that too. Continue reading

BRUSHES WITH THE MAINSTREAM

Last week I had two brushes with the mainstream of American culture and politics. The first was an appearance on a PBS television show, the Tavis Smiley show. As far as I can remember, this was only the second time I’ve been on a national TV program. The other time was in South Africa on a business program. On that occasion, I said something like, “The wealthy neighborhoods I’ve seen in South Africa are not truly wealthy. Real wealth is not razor wire fences and security walls and surveillance systems. Real wealth is to feel safe and free. It is to belong in the place you live. Real wealth is to feel at home in the world. Therefore it is impossible to be truly wealthy in an unequal society.” Continue reading

THE GIFT COMMUNITY

Life is somehow diminished by the codification of contract and debt. The opposition has been not only to those codified debts that secure the position of class, but to any codification that encourages the separation of thing and spirit by abandoning total social phenomena to a supposedly primitive past and thereby enervating felt contract. The burning of written debt instruments is a move to preserve the ambiguity and inexactness that make gift exchange social. Seen in this way, their destruction is not an antisocial act. It is a move to free gratitude as a spiritual feeling and social binder. If gratitude is, as Georg Simmel once put it, “the moral memory of mankind,” then it is a move to refreshen that memory which grows dull whenever our debts are transformed into obligations and servitudes, whenever the palpable and embodied unions of the heart— entered into out of desire, preserved in gratitude, and quit at will—are replaced by an invisible government of merely statutory connections.

By the time that anarchism emerged as a political philosophy, the idea of contract had been significantly enlarged. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, theorists of “social contract” had extrapolated from the atomic unit of individual bond to that urcontract in which individuals join together to form the state. In Thomas Hobbes’s version—to take the most striking example and the strongest opposite pole to anarchist theory—before there was “society” there was a “state of nature” in which separate persons knocked about like flies in a hot room—only worse, as they tended to kill one another. In Hobbes’s natural history, man was driven by egocentric desires (chiefly, ambition, avarice, pride, and the fear of death—any apparent altruism being quickly traced back to selfinterest). Luckily, these disparate individuals found a shared value in their fear of death, and reason led them away from the state of nature toward the securities of social life. Unluckily, reason was not as strong as human passion, and because the passions were antisocial, the social life that reason suggested had to include an absolute authority with sufficient power to keep men “in awe.” Hobbes set his state on these four legs: selfishness and the fear of death, reason and the awe inspired by authority.

A recurrent feature of social contract theory was an imagined gap between the primitive and the civilized man. Hobbes’s primitive isn’t someone you’d want to live with. Dominated by brutish aggression and the “perpetual and restless desire of Power after power,” he lives in a condition of constant war, knowing no orderly social life and neither shared nor private property, only theft. He is different in kind from the civilized man, and that difference leaves a mark on Hobbes’s politics because it simultaneously requires contract to join men together and dictates the form of that contract. Hobbes begins his politics with a fantasy about history in which a chaotic aboriginal past is replaced by civilization, the shift being marked by an imaginary moment in which men agree to give up their right to exercise private force in favor of instituting public power. Through this essential clause, social contract brings man out of nature and into civilization. But note that the contract is required precisely because man cannot be trusted to behave without it. So there is always, at least in Hobbes, this mixture of distrust and law which leads, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out, to a paradoxical politics in which “the laws of nature cannot succeed outside the frame of contrived organization … Natural law is established only by artificial Power, and Reason enfranchised only by Authority.”

It is this double conceit—first, that passion will undo social life and, second, that coercion will preserve it—that anarchist theory and the traditions of gift exchange call into question. The former imagines and the latter stand witness to a social life motivated by feeling and nonetheless marked by structure, durability, and cohesion. There are many connections between anarchist theory and gift exchange as an economy— both assume that man is generous, or at least cooperative, “in nature”; both shun centralized power; both are best fitted to small groups and loose federations; both rely on contracts of the heart over codified contract, and so on. But, above all, it seems correct to speak of the gift as anarchist property because both anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.

THE BONES OF THE DEAD

In the present century the opposition between negative and positive reciprocity has taken the form of debate between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist,’ ‘individualist’ and ‘socialist’; but the conflict is much older than that, because it is an essential polarity between the part and the whole, the one and the many.  Every age must find its balance between the two, and in every age the domination of either one will bring with it the call for its opposite.  For where, on the one hand, there is no way to assert identity against the mass, and no opportunity for private gain, we lose the well-advertised benefits of a market society – and its particular freedoms, its particular kind of innovation, its individual and material variety, and so on.  But where, on the other hand, the market alone rules, and particularly where its benefits derive from the conversion of gift property to commodities, the fruits of gift exchange are lost.  At that point commerce becomes correctly associated with the fragmentation of community and the suppression of liveliness, fertility, and the social feeling.  For where we maintain no institutions of positive reciprocity, we find ourselves unable to participate in those ‘wider spirits’ – unable to enter gracefully into nature, unable to contribute toward, and pass along the collective treasures we refer to as culture and tradition.  Only when the increase of gifts moves with the gift may the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.