August 21, 2009

Back to Our Future 1: Primeval Forgetting and Memory

Filed under: Corporatism, Nietzsche, Peak Oil — Russ @ 9:24 am
In times of such turbulence, we turn with both nostalgia and with constructive curiosity to the question of beginnings. Today’s predicament is perhaps unprecedented in history. Never has a civilization faced such an acute crisis of both the moral legitimacy of its institutions and the physical basis of its existence.
It is not a coincidence that we simultaneously enter the crises of debt collapse and Peak Oil. Modern civilization has been based upon: the wholesale liquidation of all natural resources, the best and cheapest first, with no rational allocation measure, but only the satisfaction of wealthy gluttony; and upon ever growing production and capital accumulation, without reference to rational limitations on consumption.
The economic result of this has been the inevitable regular crises of capitalism, as production regularly becomes overproduction and investment regularly becomes insane gambling as excess capital desperately seeks a place to go. This inevitably reached its extreme in recent decades as capital forced itself to liquidate the Western middle class, destroying its own consumer market, at the same time as it sprawled the globe searching for ever more deranged ways to overproduce. The only way to temporarily sustain this was to blow the entire capitalist economy into a monstrous debt bubble, turning the insolvent Western consumer into a zombie market.
Thus the American middle class was the microcosm of America as a whole, insolvent and addicted to overconsumption. It could not be sustained.
The same dynamic has played out with oil, metals, water, forests, the soil. The imperative everywhere was extraction and consumption, as quickly and wastefully as possible. This could not be sustained either, and we are now at the end of cheap, plentiful oil. The same is true of all other critical resources.
The debt/growth bubble was unsustainable in itself, as well as unsustainable except upon the fossil fuel platform. (In fact we Peak Oilers tended to neglect the first of these facts and focus on the second, so that we’ve had to revise our ideas since the debt bubble collapsed primarily of its own weight, although high oil prices driven in part by straining supply fundamentals helped set off the collapse.)
So now we know that the entirety of the modern ideology was a lie. “Capitalism” was really corporatism, “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” have really been rent-seeking and con jobs, technology and material accumulation have not improved our lives but only laid whips upon us to work us harder and longer.
Our “countries” have really been protection zones for corporate gangs to operate, and our governments have been their goons. Our political, religious, business, and media “leaders” have spoken only lies and stupidities, meant to lead us into bondage.
And today they tell the same lies as they continue the same crimes. They will try to perpetuate a bankrupt, criminal system to prop up their privilege, for as long as they can.
We are now finally, once and for all, at ground zero.
So let’s start over again, at the beginning. The great political philosophers have tackled this question for thousands of years, and have mostly found their answer in some kind of contract between individuals and government, which arises out of some primeval state of nature. Whether or not this is really the way it happened, or whether it’s just a metaphor, is not important. No one can know, and few, least of all the philosophers themselves, cared.
What’s important is the moral ideal, that men can agree upon some collective act at the inception, toward some greater future good. This, however it has happened in real life, is the defining social act.
(It’s fascinating that in so many tellings this primeval act was or included a crime. Thus we have Prometheus bringing the forbidden fire, Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple, Cain slaying Abel, on through Nietzsche’s idea of a barbaric race enslaving a deeper and weaker, forcing it to seek itself spiritually, and Freud’s primeval sons joining to kill their ur-tyrant father, thus contracting the original taboo.
And in history the revolutionary spirit has always recognized and defined itself above all by its will to make a clean sweep toward a new beginning.) 
It was the fact that debt has played such a critical role in the death of mass civilization, while Nietzsche saw debt as having been the very first social concept, and the contraction of debt as the defining primeval social act, which made me decide to begin my quest with an analysis of Essay Two of his Genealogy of Morals. (Though also because GM has been one of my three favorite books for over fifteen years now.)
Section 1 opens declaring: “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? Is it not the real problem regarding man?”
As we’ll see, this promise would quickly become concentrated in the form of debt: monetary, but also to family, ancestors, community, the gods. But here I’m getting ahead of myself.
For section 1 the conflict is between our natural capacity for active forgetfulness, and our will to commit ourselves for the future by means of a promise we make and try to remember. Active forgetting, which includes what modern psychology calls “repression”, is a mechanism of psychological health and defense. It helps us purge all the information and memory which is useless (c.f. Huxley’s “reducing valve”) or harmful (e.g. unconstructive and counterproductive guilt, obsolete moral scruples). It also, in the form of repression into the unconscious, tries to give us time to “digest” our experiences (while modern technology does all it can to forestall this by never giving us time to even incorporate experiences let alone digest them).

The doors and windows of consciousness are shut temporarily; they remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle with which the underworld of our functional organs keeps working for and against one another; a little stillness, a little tabula rasa [blank slate] of the consciousness, so that there will again be room for something new, above all, for the nobler functions and officials, for ruling, thinking ahead, determining what to do (for our organism is arranged as an oligarchy)—that is, as I said, the use of active forgetfulness, a porter at the door, so to speak, a custodian of psychic order, quiet, etiquette. From that we can see at once how, if forgetfulness were not present, there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hoping, no pride, no present. The man in whom this repression apparatus is harmed and not working properly we can compare to a dyspeptic (and not just compare)—he is “finished” with nothing. . .

For men to make promises to one another they had to develop a wholly new faculty which could overcome this active forgetting. This meant nothing less than developing “a real memory of the will”, as the prerequisite to making any promise, and seeing it through as the basis for social action.
So we see how at its core social action arises out of the primeval human will.
“Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does.”
And so today we again face this revolutionary new day, and we must ask where we must forget, and what we may promise, and how  we can find our way to making promises again.


  1. […] (part 2) Filed under: Freedom, Nietzsche — Russ @ 5:32 am   Some weeks back I started jotting down some notes on the second essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of […]

    Pingback by Cycles (part 2) « Volatility — October 14, 2009 @ 5:32 am

  2. […] […]

    Pingback by Robinson Jeffers: “Apology For Bad Dreams” « Volatility — June 4, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  3. […] come true in this transition?   I already offered a more optimistic commentary and aspiration in these two posts on Nietzsche’s essay. Now two years later I’m revisiting the question in […]

    Pingback by Post-Morality, New Mores « Volatility — October 15, 2011 @ 9:00 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: