July 23, 2011

We First Say Grace, Then Enjoy the Meal

Filed under: American Revolution, Food and Farms, Reformism Can't Work — Tags: — Russ @ 1:21 am


Years back, when I was primarily an environmentalist, I had an epiphany while considering how reformist environmental policy was always expected to meet a rigorous standard of “cost-benefit analysis” (it always did, and I didn’t use the term “reformist” back then although I was already temperamentally more inclined toward the old EarthFirst! than toward what I’d now call mainstream environmentalism). It was clear that capitalism itself, based primarily on corporate welfare, and with so many of its costs and destruction externalized on the environment, was never called upon to meet any CBA standard whatsoever. The more I thought about it the more I saw how this wasn’t unique to environmental policy, but was a universal feature of capitalism itself, in all realms. Capitalism is destructive, wasteful, inefficient, irrational, and is never expected to meet any standard of rationality or efficiency except for its own Orwellian definitions of those terms. All attempts to regulate or reform it, on the other hand, always had to meet the most severe standards, both according to capitalism’s definitions as well as English language definitions. This was, to say the least, a double standard.
(That reformism always tries to comply with and overcome this obstacle, in good Enlightenment Myth fashion, is another measure of its fecklessness. Agreeing to play a game which is rigged against you isn’t very smart and isn’t likely to have a winning outcome.)
I induced a rule: The more rational and practical a course of action is alleged to be, the more it’s held to that standard, while the more insane it is, the more it’s absolved of any concord with the reality principle. “I believe because it’s absurd.”
At first I agonized over this. Even though I was never a fetishizer of rationalism in politics myself, I still thought it ought to play a far bigger role than it actually did. More importantly, I didn’t see how environmentalism or other important causes could prosper in the long run unless politics became more rational. But I also realized that I had to at least hedge my bets, so I became more interested in the moral and psychological aspects of political struggle (what I’d then call the “irrational”). I gradually learned that these are not in fact the debasement of politics, but their human basis. A rationalist may deplore this and wish it weren’t so, but them’s the facts.
Better yet, as I accepted this, I felt more at home in my own skin, since by nature I’m a moralist and mythologizer myself . My “rationalism” was actually a transitional stage, an attitude arising out of my years-long self-education program which bled over into my advocacy. Now I was finding myself again, in the course of recognizing strategic and tactical truth. We fight first and foremost because our cause is right, and second because it’s rational and will have the best practical effect.
(But I always include both in my arguments. As I’ve written many times, food sovereignty is the only legitimate basis for the economy, morally and philosophically, while agroecology is proven to be the most productive mode of agriculture, and will become relatively even more superior post-oil and as climate change sets in. It’s also the only way to provide full employment at fulfilling work. That’s also both a moral and rational imperative.)
So in order to bring home to victory a rational and practical goal, one must also be on the side of the angels, and be able to communicate this feeling to others. This goes to the core of our psychology. As Eric Hoffer says, it’s less absurd to be willing to die for an ideal than for a material thing (for some small thing we already have), because if you’re going to measure things materially, “rationally”, then what could be more real and valuable than one’s life? Self-sacrifice becomes intelligible only when we measure things according to an ideal. This puts in perspective our common laments that so many among the non-rich have no sense of their material self-interest and so often act against it. The answer is that they have a sense, but don’t know how to rouse themselves to find it worth acting upon. They need to find the spiritual key which could liberate them for action. They wait for the trumpet call which is so clear and bright that their feet rush to answer the summons before their minds even think about it. That’s the state we’re all in. (Not every individual, of course, but every group, no matter who they are, no matter how ostensibly rational. Scientists as a group, for example, are the same.)
This moral/philosophical/spiritual appeal must evoke the sense of right, and it must conjure faith in the future. Self-sacrifice always involves some kind of idealized hope. People with no hope don’t fight, even in direct self-defense. Those who cling to the present, for example clinging to some diminishing material base, won’t fight. Those who live for the consummation of the future will. We’re more ready to fight and if necessary die for the great things we want than for the things we already have, even if these are being stolen from us before our eyes. We won’t resist the thief for the sake of preventing the theft in the here and now. But we’ll fight back with great ferocity for the sake of redeeming all thefts in a future which shall put everything back in joint.
I cited Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in my previous post. It applies to everything we’re discussing here. Forget the little bit to which you cling. Demand the moon and stars. Fight to get it all. Demanding the seemingly impossible is actually an excellent practical tool. We fight for morale itself, and surging morale then spurs the fight onward. The victorious fight is always counteraggressive and affirmative, not negative and defensive. Calls to self-defense and self-interest are only supplemental to the affirmative call to fight to achieve positive democracy and food sovereignty. (I’d still be calling for these even if kleptocracy didn’t exist.)


  1. This: “Self-sacrifice always involves some kind of idealized hope. People with no hope don’t fight, even in direct self-defense. Those who cling to the present, for example clinging to some diminishing material base, won’t fight. Those who live for the consummation of the future will. ”

    And: “Forget the little bit to which you cling. Demand the moon and stars. Fight to get it all. Demanding the seemingly impossible is actually an excellent practical tool.”

    That speaks powerfully to me.

    An insidious effect of Corporatism on mass culture is that an unfavorable historical narrative is attacked, marginalized, coopted and then commercialized. Just start with music and “record industry.” Popular culture, as an appendage of capitalism, serves to commodify history by severing historical roots. I feel that my historical narrative is of a no-past-no-future bastard age. We are here, present and accounted for at the cresting wave of Progress. Everyone is surfing the wave of capital and trying to be “rich.”

    The trumpet call you write about needs to be more elegantly played than ever in history because mass culture has lost control of it’s historical narrative to capital’s pop culture. The effect is more pervasive than I can understand.

    I feel excitement from this post because it evokes a fanatical imperative; the trumpet call is a fervent appeal of an ideal that is unmatched by anything that is on the table.

    Comment by Ross — July 23, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    • I’m glad the post excites you, Ross. I find these ideas exciting, too, and I hope to figure out a way to help communicate that excitement to as many people as possible.

      You get it exactly right in saying corporatism wants us to live completely in the present with no sense of past or future. That’s why any democratic, anti-corporate movement which will have a chance to win will need to make the opposite appeal, assert the opposite imperative: We can redeem the past and win a great future only by working and fighting in this corporate present.

      Comment by Russ — July 23, 2011 @ 10:42 am

  2. This post resonated with me. Where it went astray for me is its mention of “victory.” Within the process of human existence, there is no such thing as victory. There is only the substiution of the new orthodoxy for the old.

    The choice, to the extent that we can boil everything down to a decision between two options, is whether to accept the way the world works, or to insist upon a vision of the way the world is (and, therefore, ought to be).

    You have achieved a deep insight into how the world works, yet you insist on arguing what the world ought to be. The fact is that you can “win” everything you desire by encouraging (or even reassuring) people that they can just let go of everything they believe the world to be. Humanity, as a whole, deludes itself. There is a baseline narcissism that permeates all human societies and knowledge. We need to let that go.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — July 24, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    • It seems like there’s a contradiction here, Tao. You concede that humanity will always delude itself, from which it follows that the only way to defeat a vicious delusion is to defeat it with another, hopefully more benevolent delusion. So far we’re on the same ground as Nietzsche, in his constant explorations of how “truth” really means “useful for life”. (William James meant something similar with his Pragmatism, and may have influenced Nietzsche, though that’s not clear.) He’d agree that delusion as such isn’t bad, but only where it’s maladaptive. But he’d reject your next point, which contradicts the first – that we must (that we can) let all that go. In that case, what would we have left but the most passive kind of nihilism? We’d be fit to be slaves.

      In the foregoing I continued using the term delusion, and you also mentioned orthodoxy. I do think that my world view is neither delusional nor proposing to institute a new orthodoxy. I’d say the future energy descent is an upcoming fact. I’d say it’s been proven that agroecology will maximize food production under conditions of energy descent. While it may not be scientifically “proven” that food markets are naturally regional/local, that food commodification is grotesquely inefficient, that the only way to organize agroecology is on a non-capitalist, non-corporate, cooperative usufruct basis, and that therefore if we want to eat we have to create such a society, I’d still say the evidence for these propositions is overwhelming.

      For everything else, I’ll subsume it under positive democracy, which if sincerely undertaken would by its nature never impose an “orthodoxy”, because it would always embody the democratic will. Anything the people found wrong they’d immediately vote to change. And dissenters would retain full negative freedom to abstain from things they didn’t like.

      Finally, since this is a war, it follows that we have to seek Victory. That’s self-evident to me. At least in the negative sense of defeating the enemy once and for all, though I agree that no one can guarantee the exact nature of what will follow on a positive level. The best anyone can do is present a plan, try to organize the struggle toward building the positive concurrently with winning the negative, and do the best you can.

      I’m glad the rest of the post resonated.

      Comment by Russ — July 24, 2011 @ 5:52 am

      • I knew when I commented that I was not truly expressing what I meant to say. I’ll try again, but I don’t think I have the right combination of words just yet.

        The conflict, the War, is illusory, a by-product of the expectation that when one person is right, another person must be wrong. As observed in Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching, “when people see some things as good, other things become bad.”

        Now, there is no doubt that the current orthodoxy is waging war on humanity, but that does not mean that there is actually a War. Nor does it mean we need a new orthodoxy. Orthodoxy spawns conflict by creating heterodoxies that orthodox adherents naturally seek to destroy. In as much as neoliberal elites are destroying man’s essential nature, they are doing so in a fundamentally human way, and when we identify them as our enemy, we confirm for them that they are doing the right thing. While I have no doubt that there is a very small minority of elites who know exactly what they are doing (and why) and, in that sense, are inhuman monsters, the vast majority are just as human as everybody else, albeit crippled by their belief system.

        I do not think you or your movement are delusional. I think the human animal is set up to delude itself, and belief systems exist to harness that propensity and control society, mostly through the blind spots they create. Indeed, the current orthodoxy cannot see problems like Peak Oil because to do so would shatter their pretty illusion and make them question everything they think they know.

        I guess my real issue is that belief systems create the expectations against which reality is measured. I’d like to do away with belief systems and use reality to measure whether human action is beneficial to society. Of course, one can argue that any agreement on what is beneficial to society is itself a belief system, but I don’t think that necessarily follows.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — July 24, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

      • Of course, one can argue that any agreement on what is beneficial to society is itself a belief system, but I don’t think that necessarily follows.

        Maybe the set of ideas and practices which would be beneficial is not in itself a belief system, but to value it over a different set does require belief.

        One of the core questions Nietzsche explored was: Can science and reason justify themselves?

        After tentatively trying out the answer Yes (in Human, All Too Human) and then exploring it further, he eventually settled on his definitive answer (in Joyful Science section 344): No, science and reason cannot justify themselves, because to value scientific and rational truth in the first place is not a scientific proposition, but a moral one.

        (I wrote a long post on this


        which I don’t know if you saw. You might find it interesting.)

        Similarly, it’s clear that the corporate war on humanity has nothing to do with what’s intrinsically good for humanity (everyone knows what that is), but is about whether we morally choose to care what’s good for humanity, or whether we’re content with a future of mass enslavement and murder. In the end choosing agroecology isn’t about parsing the agronomic data and holding a rationalistic symposium. It’s a moral decision about whether hominids should live as human beings, or as slaves, or should simply starve to death.

        As for this war being illusory, if you mean the aggressors use lies to support it and deluded followers to prosecute it, I can agree with that. But it’s certainly no metaphysical illusion. They really are attacking us, just like a pack of vicious dogs.

        Comment by Russ — July 24, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  3. I was reading Leibniz lately and a particularly interesting passage is:

    “As possibility is the principle of essence, so perfection is the principle of existence” paraphrased from an essay titled “On The Ultimate Origination of Things”

    I spoke with my friend about this and he suggested that we can best achieve the perfection of our consciousness (consciousness being the defining feature of our species) by honing our ability to experience love and have that guide our many possible actions. Then we need only remember the feeling (in our hearts) to spark us whenever necessary.

    I think he is on to something and it is quite possible that while

    “This moral/philosophical/spiritual appeal must evoke the sense of right, and it must conjure faith in the future”

    is necessary, a facilitating of a love consciousness (and thus a desire for harmony) is of the most critical importance in this ascent of humanity that is the propelling force behind all this discussion. For by doing so, we will not only help people see past the delusions of the day, but kindle that fire for a beautiful world that is common, if not laying dormant, to all human beings.

    Russ, I wonder what you think about the topic of Forgiveness. What role does it play in the future that you see? I’m conflicted at times whether I think that my love for what is honest manifests always as an open accepting type of love or if it sometimes must manifest as the arm of justice.

    Comment by Strieb Roman — July 24, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    • Streib, I hope forgiveness would be a common virtue in the society I envision. Although people would do so much more to cooperate and care about one another, we’d still be imperfect people with foibles and fugues of bad behavior. Wherever these are followed by sincere regret, the right response is to forgive. (That’s the proper role of e.g. Catholic confession – to be forgiven one’s all-too-human lapses for which one is sorry. Of course, it’s more commonly used by the unrepentant as a Get Out of Jail Free card, often for serious “sins”.)

      Whether love of honesty must manifest as the arm of justice, or whether it can be accepting and forgiving, is dependent upon the circumstance. I’d never forgive systematic crime, and for that I’d have only the sword of justice, if I ever had the power to wield it. But for normal human weakness, I’d forgive others and ask them to forgive me. That’s human.

      Comment by Russ — July 24, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

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