March 20, 2011


Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Nietzsche, Tower of Babel — Russ @ 3:22 am


Today’s this blog’s second birthday, and I’m feeling good about the new Spring. I think I’ve largely completed my work in laying out the basic ideas, as I see them, regarding where we are, how we got here, and what we’re up against. While there’s still some arranging and polishing to be done there, from here on most of what I write’s going to be about where we need to go and how to get there. I’ve laid out my basic ideas there as well. Now it’s time to organize it all and flesh it out in detail.
The road to our transformation will likely be long and hard. But we can have confidence in humanity’s eventual triumph, because:
1. This system is physically and fiscally untenable, a Tower of Babel, which is caving in upon itself and must soon topple once and for all.
2. Every tyranny, the more intense it becomes, generates an ever more intense resistance against itself. This gathering resistance, which may for a long time remain clamped under the lid of a bulging pressure cooker, or may exhibit itself in what seem as first like disconnected outbursts, accelerates the process of the tyranny’s self-destruction.
This dialectic of revolution also evinces in the growing pains of the democratic movement, as it finds its historical way. It reminds me of what Nietzsche wrote about self-overcoming.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “On Self-Overcoming”, Nietzsche wrote of the inner conflicts as an individual or movement evolves from one wellspring of action to a higher one.

But that you may understand my word of good and evil, for that
purpose will I tell you my word of life, and of the nature of all
living things.
The living thing did I follow; I walked in the broadest and
narrowest paths to learn its nature.
With a hundred-faced mirror did I catch its glance when its mouth
was shut, so that its eye might speak unto me. And its eye spoke
unto me.
But wherever I found living things, there heard I also the
language of obedience. Whatever lives, obeys.
And this heard I secondly: Whatever cannot obey itself, is
commanded. Such is the nature of living things.

This transcendence often involves a rising but still subconscious force having to enlist the conscious ego as a taskmaster against the inertia of the superannuated habits and thoughts of the old force. In this case, in N’s description (“On War and Warriors”), through the device of the ego one is commanding oneself in a consciously top-down sense, rather than obeying oneself from the soil of one’s being.

Recalcitrance – that is the distinction of the slave. Let your
distinction be obedience. Let your commanding itself be obeying!
To the good warrior “thou shalt” sounds more pleasant than “I
will.” And all that is dear unto you, you shall have it commanded
unto you.

But as the new wellspring surges and the old one runs dry, the organism completes its psychic movement, and the new stage of the movement becomes the bottom-up imperative, upon which ego only floats as a passenger.
To make it more clear what he meant, I’ll give two examples from my personal life. Years ago, after years of failing to exercise, I started running again. At first it was a chore to nag myself into going out each day, especially if the weather sucked. But as I got used to it and felt stronger, and as I realized that running wasn’t a necessary chore I was doing for the sake of getting back in physical shape, but a symptom of an evolutionary spiritual change, it felt more and more natural and effortless. By now I’ve long been at the point where not only is it not a psychological chore to persuade myself to get going, but if for whatever reason I miss a run that’s what causes me to feel weird. The chore is failing to act.
To put it in Nietzschean terms, at first my ego commanded my body, now my body commands. It’s the same with writing this blog. When I finally broke my years of silence/lethargy, it was often a chore to write or even to figure out what to write. At first the ego was commanding me to write, commanding me to feel my way toward what I was really going to try to say. Now my body commands.
This is the key to everything. Keep struggling, however much psychological drag you feel, until you feel yourself driven by necessity. This is when we attain the fullest positive freedom.
It’s not just a subjective concern. Everywhere we see uncertainty and hesitation in the face of fear. But this mass feeling can be overcome only by each of us forcing ourselves to assert ourselves democratically and fight for our freedom until it becomes our massing, coursing life blood. 
Nietzsche wrote primarily about the evolution of the individual. But the description is just as true of the movements of history. The democratic movement must now overcome itself, outgrow what is superannuated. Specifically, democracy must forever renounce all compromises with elitism – political, economic, spiritual. We know now that elitism is inherently totalitarian and can never be compromised with, never appeased. This is true of centralized government power, and it’s true of corporatism. It’s the final conflict between these and democracy. One force, the human or the criminal, must win absolutely. This will decide the fate of humanity, to triumph or perish.
This means the democratic movement, still cluttered with every kind of halfway measure and regression, must achieve self-discipline. In Beyond Good and Evil (section 188) Nietzsche described how artists and thinkers face the same need to discover necessity in freedom.

In every people how much trouble poets and orators have made for themselves!—not excepting some contemporary prose writers in whose ears a relentless conscience dwells—“for the sake of some foolishness,” as utilitarian fools say, who think that makes them clever, —“out of obsequiousness to arbitrary laws,” as the anarchists say, who think that makes them “free,” even free spirited. The strange fact, however, is that everything there is or has been on earth to do with freedom, refinement, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, whether it is in thinking itself, or in governing, or in speaking and persuading, in arts just as much as in morals, developed only thanks to the “tyranny of such arbitrary laws,” and in all seriousness, the probability is not insignificant that this is “nature” and “natural”—and not that laisser aller! Every artist knows how far from the feeling of letting himself go his “most natural” condition is, the free ordering, setting, disposing, shaping in moments of “inspiration”—and how strictly and subtly he obeys at that very moment the thousand-fold laws which make fun of all conceptual formulations precisely because of their hardness and decisiveness (even the firmest idea, by comparison, contains something fluctuating, multiple, ambiguous—).

It’s ironic that he chose that passage for one of his ignorant jabs at anarchism (a term he understood only in the dumbest MSM sense), since on the contrary this description of the body’s command of itself has always been the ideal toward which anarchism strives through all forms of direct action. We seek freedom in necessity. This is the dialectic of democratic self-organization and self-discipline.
I’ll close with one more quote (section 213) describing this freedom/necessity dialectic:

And so, for example, that genuine philosophical association of a bold, exuberant spirituality, which speeds along presto, with a dialectical strictness and necessity which takes no false steps, is unknown to most thinkers and scholars from their own experience, and hence, if someone wishes to talk about it in front of them, they find it implausible. They take the view that every necessity is a need, an awkward requirement to follow and to be compelled, and for them thinking itself is considered something slow, hesitant, almost labourious, and often enough “worth the sweat of the noble”—but under no circumstances something light, divine, closely related to dancing and high spirits! “Thinking” and “taking an issue seriously,” “considering it gravely”—among them these belong together: that’s the only way they have “experienced” thinking.—In such matters artists may have a more subtle sense of smell. They know only too well that at the very moment when they no longer create “arbitrarily” and make everything by necessity, their sense of freedom, refinement, authority, of creative setting up, disposing, and shaping is at its height—in short, that necessity and the “freedom of the will” are then one thing for them.

This is synonymous with the dialectic of direct democracy and self-discipline. Elitists have always been wrong in thinking that only superior (generally meaning, financially rich) individuals and organizations could allegedly discipline themselves this way. Soon humanity in the mass shall prove its own self-organizational skills and spirit, far beyond the dreams of any technocrat. This shall be the self-overcoming of democracy, and the redemption of humanity.
I’m going to be taking a partial Internet break for a week or so, but I’ll be around to respond to comments.

October 15, 2010

Positive Freedom: Nietzsche, Marx, and Anarchism

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Marx, Nietzsche — Tags: — Russ @ 9:13 am


One of Nietzsche’s core ideas, and one of his most misunderstood, is his contrast of noble morality vs. slave morality.
The essence of the distinction is this. “Noble”, or what I’ll call positive morality, defines itself as the good and seeks to act affirmatively based upon that definition. It only derivatively defines “the bad”, and reacts, according to what contrasts with itself.
“Slave” morality, by contrast, starts out reactively, defining “the masters” and any other alien as “evil”, and only derivatively defines itself as the good. In either case its action is merely a reaction.
So to use Nietzsche’s description, the positive morality defines itself and the good according to what it calls honesty, loyalty, courage, principle, gratitude and revenge (in both cases paying back what is owed). It derivatively describes the bad, the slavish, according to the antonyms of these: lying, faithlessness, cowardice, cynicism or nihilism, the unwillingness to pay what is owed out of some despicable lassitude – ingratitude, laziness, cowardice.
By contrast, the slave morality starts by revaluing the “noble” virtues as vices. What they call honesty it calls haughtiness and arrogance. What they call loyalty it calls a stupid or childish adherence to dead ritual. What they call courage it calls aggression and recklessness. Principle becomes either stubborn impractical “purism” at best or a complete fraud at worst. Gratitude or revenge become empty interest-seeking.
It then revalues its own traits, considered contemptible by the positive morality, as “the good”. Its lying and faithlessness become humility, cleverness, prudence, the measure of intelligence. Its physical cowardice becomes virtuous pacifism and its moral cowardice becomes a salutary will to compromise, to be “inclusive”, to “find common ground”. Its lack of principle becomes “pragmatism”. Its ingratitude becomes the sense of entitlement, and its inability to avenge becomes “tolerance”.
Nietzsche’s ideas here are crystallized in Beyond Good and Evil section 260, and he develops them at greater length in On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay I.
Nietzsche himself wrote about psychological, spiritual, and creative issues, not about politics and the economy. (Indeed, he affected to despise the latter, and one of the inferior elements of his writing is his intermittent attacks on political radicals, for whom he used “anarchist” as a catch-all term. He was basically ignorant about politics and economics and didn’t want to know about them.) But although I no longer subscribe to his spiritualized cult of aristocracy, I’m finding that if I transpose his ideas on spiritual and intellectual creators to an expression about producers in general, then almost everything he says can be redeemed for anarchism.
By producers I mean producers who have political self-respect and the will to fight.
So I’m thinking out the idea of transposing the master/slave morality in this way:
Master morality = Positive freedom, the bottom-up assertion of political and economic democracy, the assertion through day-to-day action of freedom and human dignity, and worker self-actualization. This is not primarily a “rebellion” against the criminals, seeking “liberation” from them, although it is that as well. It is first and foremost a Renaissance of our humanity, a rebirth, a revolution in the classical sense of “revolving back” to the primal human order.
Slave morality = The fetish of negative/bourgeois freedom (negative freedom is a wonderful thing, but only as a tool toward some human goal, not as a value in itself), the desire for “enlightened” elitism, “benevolent” despotism, the rancid dream of trickle-down (political, economic, spiritual, cultural), everything that is characteristic of liberals and conservatives.
One of the many parallels between Marx and Nietzsche is the shared philosophy of the producer. Marx wrote about the worker, but conceived him as a producer seeking fulfillment through his self-owned and -directed work. He conceived his ideal society based upon this. He didn’t see the worker as the consumer, except derivatively. He didn’t view people as naturally experiencing work as a chore to be endured and completed so they could get on with consumption.
We can see here how he had his own idea of the positive morality of the worker as creative producer, vs. the slave morality of the consumer. This is an extension of the labor theory of value, which Marx didn’t invent but expanded into a vision of society. The best society is that in which the laborer has freedom over his labor, where he produces as a free human being. Any coercive elitism, any hierarchy, any extraction, alienates the worker from his work.
And so it’s true in general. All parasitic elitism, all wealth and power concentration, stands between us and our freedom, between us and our labor fulfillment, between us and our humanity. It aggressively alienates us from our birthright. The criminals have taken what could have been such a wonderful world and turned it into a place of, at best, bare struggle and tension and fear, and at worst, more often, misery and slavery and violence.
Similar to Marx, Nietzsche wrote about art and philosophy, but wrote about them from the perspective of the artist and the thinker, and that’s the audience for whom he wrote. He didn’t write primarily for the art lover and reader of philosophy.
So in a sense it’s an “elite” mindset, but for the active strata among the productive populace. Both despise parasites, wasteful idlers, rentiers of every sort. It’s just a different emphasis. So in both cases the “elitism”, if we can call it that, overt in Nietzsche’s case and implicit in that of Marx, is that it’s a philosophy of, by, and for the producer, not the consumer. It envisions a social world constructed for the self-actualization of the producer, not the comfort of the consumer.
By contrast, every kind of what can be called passive elitism, all concentrated wealth and power, every trickle-down political and economic ideology – corporatism, capitalism, liberalism, representative democracy, etc. – seems focused on the hedonism of the consumer. It wants to pander to passivity. (And of course none of it works the way it claims. The comfort of the consumer, as we’re now seeing, was only provisional and temporary.)
The best of Marx’s self-directing worker (without the contradictory centralism) and Nietzsche’s self-directing thinker and creator (without the ivory tower snobbery) are combined in anarchism, which also revalues the seeming “elitism” of the affirmative producer philosophy through the egalitarianism of direct participation, equality of opportunity to work, to create, to seek human fulfillment.
Here’s some ideas from the Anarchist FAQ, an excellent and encyclopedic resource on every aspect of anarchism. These are quoted from sections 2.7 and 2.16.

Direct action has an empowering and liberating effect on those involved in it. Self-activity is the means by which the creativity, initiative, imagination and critical thought of those subjected to authority can be developed….

Society, while shaping all individuals, is also created by them, through their actions, thoughts, and ideals. Challenging institutions that limit one’s freedom is mentally liberating, as it sets in motion the process of questioning authoritarian relationships in general. This process gives us insight into how society works, changing our ideas and creating new ideals….By changing the world, even in a small way, we change ourselves….

Anarchists, however, do not think that self-liberation must wait for the future, after the “glorious revolution.” The personal is political, and given the nature of society, how we act in the here and now will influence the future of our society and our lives. Therefore, even in pre-anarchist society anarchists try to create, as Bakunin puts it, “not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.” We can do so by creating alternative social relationships and organisations, acting as free people in a non-free society. Only by our actions in the here and now can we lay the foundation for a free society…..

Revolution is a process, not an event, and every “spontaneous revolutionary action” usually results from and is based upon the patient work of many years of organisation and education by people with “utopian” ideas. The process of “creating the new world in the shell of the old” (to use another I.W.W. expression), by building alternative institutions and relationships, is but one component of what must be a long tradition of revolutionary commitment and militancy…..

In other words, anarchy needs anarchists in order to be created and survive. But these anarchists need not be perfect, just people who have freed themselves, by their own efforts, of the superstition that command-and-obedience relations and capitalist property rights are necessary. The implicit assumption in the idea that anarchy needs “perfect” people is that freedom will be given, not taken; hence the obvious conclusion follows that an anarchy requiring “perfect” people will fail. But this argument ignores the need for self-activity and self-liberation in order to create a free society. For anarchists, “history is nothing but a struggle between the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed.” [Peter Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 85] Ideas change through struggle and, consequently, in the struggle against oppression and exploitation, we not only change the world, we change ourselves at the same time. So it is the struggle for freedom which creates people capable of taking the responsibility for their own lives, communities and planet. People capable of living as equals in a free society, so making anarchy possible.

This is the essence of positive democracy, positive freedom. Posted in honor of Nietzsche’s birthday (1844- ).

October 9, 2010

Negativity and Affirmation: Food Stamps, Soda, Farmers’ Markets

Filed under: Food and Farms, Freedom, Land Reform, Nietzsche, Relocalization — Russ @ 2:43 am


By doing we forego. – I abhor all those moralities which say: “Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!” But I like those moralities which urge me to do something and keep doing it, from morning till evening, and then to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing except doing this well. When one lives like that, one thing after another that does not belong to such a life drops away. Without hatred or aversion one sees this take its leave today and that tomorrow, like yellow leaves that at any slight stirring of the air depart from the tree. We may not even notice this leave-taking; for our eye is riveted to the goal – forward, not sideward, backward, downward. What we do should determine what we forego; by doing we forego – that’s my principle. But I do not wish to strive with open eyes for my own impoverishment. I don’t like negative virtues – virtues whose very essence it is to negate and deny oneself something.

.       -Nietzsche, The Joyful Science, section 304.
New York City wants to ban the use of food stamps for soda and other beverages which are nothing but sugared water. This is supposed to be a measure to fight obesity and encourage better nutrition among food stamp users.
The architects of this proposal may have some such thoughts. But the real nature of this also involves the paternalism of how allegedly stupid the poor are, that they don’t even know how to eat, and the bullying moralizing of, “my tax dollars are paying for that, so they shouldn’t be drinking soda with it!” This negative morality and the negative policy (bans, restrictions, limits) which follows from it is a value in itself. It’s one of the reasons liberals are who they are – elitists who want various forms of public assistance programs, but always in the form of nickels and dimes with the recipient liable to endless sermonizing and the petty harassment of restrictions like this.
Obesity is a significant problem, and the poor do tend to have poor eating habits. The reason for this, however, has nothing to do with any alleged turpitude. It’s because junk food loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, like soda, is artificially cheap because of the massive subsidies Big Corn receives. Domestic sugar is also a major corporate welfare recipient in the form of subsidies and tariffs, though not as much as corn. by contrast real produce is relatively expensive. So when you’re poor and hungry and your “society” denies you the ability to grow food or otherwise work for it, but does give you a niggardly stipend in the form of food stamps, unfortunately your most rational calorie-maximization option may be to use it for junk food.
Meanwhile the same people who are so sanctimonious about their tax dollars being used for food stamp soda are far less likely to yell about their tax dollars subsidizing industrial corn production, even though that massive welfare program is the reason soda is so much cheaper than fruit and vegetables. How much of the bullying mindset goes into that decision on what to focus on, who to bash?
More importantly, regardless of the merits of this particular restriction, this is yet another example of the way people see a problem, claim to want a solution, and their knee-jerk response is always negative policy, negative morality. We can only get there through fighting against something, not by starting with fighting for something. We can only ban something, not build something affirmative.
In this case the problem is said to be that food stamps are being used to buy junk food. The problem is bad nutrition among the poor. A more accurate way of expressing these is that when you’re on food stamps produce is relatively expensive, and it’s often hard to find anyway. And even where farmers’ markets are accessible, few of them are set up to accept food stamps.
Faced with this probelm, what does affirmative morality and affirmative policy say? The solution is to increase access to good food, and render it more affordable. While the big picture does demand a negative policy, it’s not to nitpick the poor, but instead to get rid of crop subsidies. (And the bigger, affirmative goal there is to transform the land dispensation so that farmers can make a living without subsidies and becoming mere functions of Big Ag.)
At the more micro level we’re discussing here, the affirmative solution is to expand food stamp usage at farmers’ markets. The first hurdle here is the transportation issue. Then there’s the fact that it requires expensive machinery to swipe the card. And finally there remains the relative cost discrepancy. In response to these challenges some markets have organized bus service. They’ve found ways to either procure the machines or find alternative ways the stamps can be redeemed for some other currency which can then be used at the market. Matching dollar programs help make good food as economically accessible as the bad.
Those are a few possibilities. Of course in the long run we need a complete transformation of the food production and delivery system, and this in turn means Land Reform, which means lots of other things….And it’s all toward the affirmative goal of living better, living as human beings. This includes eating better.
So we can see how picayune is Bloomberg’s typical elitist-liberal-technocrat proposal. It fixes nothing and is meant to fix nothing. At best it’s another wretched little tinkering amid total catastrophe. More likely it’s real purpose is to add insult to injury. First they steal and impoverish, and then when they deign to sprinkle down a few crumbs, they make the miserable recipient listen to a lecture and jump through a hoop.
“My style is affirmative and deals with contradiction and criticism only as a means, only involuntarily,” Nietzsche reminds himself in the midst of his terrific rant on education in Twilight of the Idols. (N’s discussion there seems topical in today’s America although he’s writing about 19th century German schools.) It’s easy to see how we too are tempted to forget ourselves amid such disgusting enemies, who are so relentless and at the same time so paltry, mean, and ugly in their crimes. It’s hard to be affirmative in the face of their scabrous negativity, and not reciprocate petty meanness for petty meanness.
But I try to keep my thoughts on the wing, and I try to be affirmative, thinking and fighting for what’s good and right, not hating on what’s rotten. That’s why relocalization activism is such a fruitful opportunity for us all. It’s what we need to do, it’s the road to the goal of our human redemption. But it’s not only the means to this end, it’s also this end in itself. Freedom isn’t just an end state you fight for and win, like a piece of ground. Most of all freedom is won in the very act of doing and fighting.
A place like a farmers’ market, or the farm, or a craftsman’s shop, is the place of living the freedom which is the means and end of all we do. So we should look to this act, and a way of life based on the act, as the basis of affirmative living and thinking. And this affirmative tense must suffuse all that we advocate and demand. There’s always the goal, and if some obstacle is in the way, that’s just an occasion, and overcoming it is merely a derivative of the goal.
Anyone who lives this way will find that the way of life itself becomes the goal embodied, every day, every hour. Freedom realizes itself through the struggle for it. In the end, we attain humanity in no other way than by living as human beings.

February 18, 2010

What Does Nietzsche Say About Credit Scores?

Filed under: Land Reform, Law, Neo-feudalism, Nietzsche — Tags: — Russ @ 6:22 am


When I wrote previously about strategic defaults (part one of the series here), one of the issues I discussed was the creditor’s ability to rat out the defaulter to the credit report bureau, to trash his score.
This kind of punishment is general throughout the process, for missing a payment, for being foreclosed upon, for strategically defaulting, for going bankrupt. Little of it has any relation to one’s actual behavior. It doesn’t matter whether somebody was a rampaging “flipper” or someone pumped full of American Dream propaganda and hard-sold on a predatory loan, who later loses his job, sustains a medical crisis, or simply is dumped underwater by the bursting of the bubble. In every case the point of the system is to intimidate and bully the consumer into docile, compliant rat-racing behavior.
In this particular case, the banks blew up the bubble and made the subprime loans, while the government and MSM indoctrinated the people into the home-ownership debt ideology. And now that the bubble has burst, the hapless borrower is supposed to take the full hit, while every cent of fraudulent bank “profit” is conserved.
As Brent White writes, this is not only a unilateral reshuffling of the contractual balance of exposure, but hinders any rational, equitable mortgage modification policy goals.

Most lenders will, in other words, take full advantage of the asymmetry of norms between lender and borrower and will use the threat of damaging the borrower’s credit score to bring the borrower into compliance. Additionally, many lenders will only bargain when the threat of damaging the homeowner’s credit has lost its force and it becomes clear to the lender that foreclosure is imminent absent some accommodation. On a fundamental level, the asymmetry of moral norms for borrowers and market norms for lenders gives lenders an unfair advantage in negotiations related to the enforcement of contractual rights and obligations, including the borrower’s right to exercise the put option. This imbalance is exaggerated by the credit reporting system, which gives lenders the power to threaten borrowers’ human worth and social status by damaging their credit scores – scores that serve as much as grades for moral character as they do for creditworthiness. The result is a predictable imbalance in which individual homeowners have borne a huge and disproportionate burden of the housing collapse……

The suggestion that Congress should amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to prevent lenders from reporting mortgage defaults is premised upon the underlying mortgage contract, in which lenders agree to hold the house alone as collateral. In the case of underwater mortgages, however, the portion of the mortgage above the home’s present value essentially becomes unsecured. Lenders compensate for this by holding the borrowers’ credit score, and thus their human worth, as collateral – thereby altering the underlying agreement that the home serves as the sole collateral. As a consequence, lenders are often able to reap the benefit, but escape the costs, of their bargain.

The credit score has been institutionalized as a key metric not only of financial reliability but of character, reputation in general. The point is not only to clinically catalog financial behavior, but to threaten, extort, punish, shame, outlaw.
This seems like a recrudescence toward olden times where the punishment of debtors was actually part of what Nietzsche called the “festival of cruelty.”
N writes (On the Genealogy of Morals, essay II, sections 5-6) of the creditor inflicting pain, even literally extracting flesh, as recompense when the debtor can’t pay.

Let us clarify for ourselves the logic of this whole method of compensation—it is weird enough. The equivalency is given in this way: instead of an advantage making up directly for the harm (hence, instead of compensation in gold, land, possessions of some sort or another), the creditor is given a kind of pleasure as repayment and compensation—the pleasure of being allowed to discharge his power on a powerless person without having to think about it, the delight in “de fair le mal pour le plaisir de le faire” [doing wrong for the pleasure of doing it], the enjoyment of violation. By means of the “punishment” of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters. Finally he also for once comes to the lofty feeling of despising a being as someone “beneath him,” as someone he is entitled to mistreat—or at least, in the event that the real force of punishment, of executing punishment, has already been transferred to the “authorities,” the feeling of seeing the debtor despised and mistreated. The compensation thus consists of an order for and a right to cruelty.

He goes on:

In this area, that is, in the laws of obligation, the world of the moral concepts “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” and “sanctity of obligation” has its origin—its beginning, like the beginning of everything great on earth, was watered thoroughly and for a long time with blood. And can we not add that this world deep down has never again been completely free of a certain smell of blood and torture—(not even with old Kant whose categorical imperative stinks of cruelty)? In addition, here that weird knot linking the ideas of “guilt and suffering,” which perhaps has become impossible to undo, was first knit together. Let me pose the question once more: to what extent can suffering be a compensation for “debts”? To the extent that making someone suffer provides the highest degree of pleasure, to the extent that the person hurt by the debt, in exchange for the injury as well as for the distress caused by the injury, got an extraordinary offsetting pleasure: creating suffering…

N calls this a conjecture regarding how the whole sense of guilt, the “bad conscience”, was branded into prehistoric man. And today the system, in scrambling to maintain that sense of guilt among the peasants even as its own criminality and abdication of authority becomes ever more manifest, is retrogressing to measures redolent of this primordial guilt branding.

It seems to me that the delicacy and, even more, the Tartufferie [hypocrisy] of tame house pets (I mean modern man, I mean us) resist imagining with all our power how much cruelty contributes to the great celebratory joy of older humanity, as, in fact, an ingredient mixed into almost all their enjoyments and, from another perspective, how naive, how innocent, their need for cruelty appears, how they fundamentally think of its particular “disinterested malice” (or to use Spinoza’s words, the sympathia malevolens [malevolent sympathy]) as a normal human characteristic:—and hence as something to which their conscience says a heartfelt Yes!* A more deeply penetrating eye might still notice, even today, enough of this most ancient and most fundamental celebratory human joy. In any case, it’s not so long ago that people wouldn’t think of an aristocratic wedding and folk festival in the grandest style without executions, tortures, or something like an auto-da-fé [burning at the stake], and similarly no noble household lacked creatures on whom people could vent their malice and cruel taunts without a second thought.

This puts reality TV, ever more humiliating and destructive, in perspective. Are Stephen King’s dystopic game shows “The Long Walk” and “The Running Man” far off in reality?
We’re seeing the new outlines of the old medieval jurisprudence – outlawry, debtors’ prison, and the festival of cruelty. Sublimated judicial combat, in the form of the adversarial legal system becoming a monetized arms race, who can afford to hire the fanciest lawyers, has long been entrenched. (I doubt that the right to an attorney at all if you can’t afford one would ever be enshrined today if it weren’t a superprecedent already; and we can expect to see that under increasing nominal attack, just as it’s long been under surreptitious attack via budget cuts.) Most of all, just as the perverted religious premise that wealth equals merit and virtue has long been the establishment ideology, so more and more all of society is becoming a large scale trial by ordeal, wherein being able to find and hold a living wage job is just as inscrutable a religious Mystery as remaining in perfect health if you can’t afford health insurance, and in either case your success or failure is simply the judgement of god, of mysterious forces of nature. Were you one of the Elect or not?
Can you hold your hand in the flame without flinching? This judges your innocence or guilt, and in our times your human worth. There is no “society”, and certainly calculated top-down neoliberal policy has nothing to do with what’s happening, oh no.
These are all familiar signposts on our journey back to feudalism.

February 10, 2010

Imperialism vs. the Law


The Napoleonic failure to unite Europe under the French flag was a clear indication that conquest by a nation led either to a full awakening of the conquered people’s national consciousness and to consequent rebellion against the conqueror, or to tyranny. And though tyranny, because it needs no consent, may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.

So says Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
That’s our theme – how conquest which seeks nothing but economic exploitation must in the end rule tyrannically, and how this in turn must bring tyranny back to the imperial country itself. Those who have fought imperialism on behalf of the exploited and conquered have always also been fighting for their own liberty which was under implicit, and increasingly explicit, assault. Over the past decade that’s been proven true with great ferocity, as the long economic assault on America’s non-rich, and on our politics and press, has been joined by the vicious assault on civil liberties, the freedoms of speech and assembly, the rise of the imperial presidency, the militarized police, and the prison-industrial complex.
Today we have to look at everything in the sense of dissolving the rule of law. The law of the home country is no longer indigenous, “national” law, but the imperialist state “law” which is really nothing but process for the sake of maximized corporatist outcome (to put it in terms of jurisprudential philosophy, the corporatists are consequentialists all the way, they care about means only toward an end, while those who would ever stand fanatically on some myopic means, like the ACLU and other process fanatics where it came to the Citizens United case, are once again playing by rules the enemy will never pay by; I’ll revisit this in an upcoming post). “Law” as would be fit only for the extralegal, anti-political business competition becomes the “law” of the country. Corporatized capitalism becomes the ruling social ideology.
A core part of the process of imperialism coming home is the breakdown of the rule of law. In that connection I found this article by Claude Salhani interesting. He broaches the possibility of Israel joining the European Union. The implications he discusses seem so far-fetched that reading it, I thought it was tongue-in-cheek. “They’ll just get a waiver for that”, I kept saying. But I think he was serious.
But meanwhile maybe we should read it in reverse. In that case its a fascinating piece, almost Swiftian. For everything he says would have to change in Israel, I think we need to make the experiment of reading it as, “This is how the EU has to change to become more like Israel.” (And the US too.)
Salhani starts out deploring the “deadlock” in the Middle east peace talks and its ruinous effect on imperial investment in the Mideast. He goes on:

And whenever trouble brews in the Middle East it tends to spill over into other parts of the world. The risk that Mideast violence could spread to nearby Europe might have been one of the reasons that pushed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to say that Israel should be admitted into the European Union earlier this week. Berlusconi made the statement during an official state visit to Israel. Berlusconi, of course, is one of Israel’s strongest supporters.

But what is Israel? It’s not just any country. It has a very well-defined role as ground zero for the totalitarian security-industrial complex, all of whose aspects have radiated out from that core.
Naomi Klein describes this in Shock Doctrine:

What makes Israel interesting as a guns-and-caviar model is not only that its economy is resilient in the face of major political shocks such as the 2006 war with Lebanon or Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza, but also that Israel has crafted an economy that expands markedly in direct response to escalating violence. The reasons for Israeli industry’s comfort level with disaster are not mysterious. Years before US and European companies grasped the potential of the global security boom, Israeli technology firms were busily pioneering the homeland security industry, and they continue to dominate the sector today…From a corporate perspective, this development has made Israel a model to be emulated in the post-9/11 market. From a social and political perspective, however, Israel should serve as something else – a stark warning. The fact that Israel continues to enjoy booming prosperity, even as it wages war against its neighbors and escalates its brutality in the conquered territories, demonstrates just how perilous it is to build an economy based on the premise of continual war and deepening disasters.

It’s the frontier outpost and proving ground for all imperial assaults:

Israel’s case is extreme, but the kind of society it is creating may not be unique. The disaster capitalism complex thrives in conditions of low-intensity grinding conflict. That seems to be the end point in all the disaster zones, from New Orleans to Iraq. In April 2007, US soldiers began implementing a plan to turn several volatile Baghdad neighborhoods into “gated communities”, surrounded by checkpoints and concrete walls, where residents would be tracked using biometric technology. “We’ll be like the Palestinians”, predicted one resident, watching his neighborhood being sealed in by the barrier. After it becomes clear that Baghdad is never going to be Dubai, and New Orleans won’t be Disneyland, Plan B is to settle into another Colombia or Nigeria – never-ending war, fought in large measure by private soldiers and paramilitaries, damped down just enough to get the natural resources out of the ground, helped along by mercenaries guarding the pipelines, platforms, and water reserves.

Salhani referred to the “spill over” of “trouble” from the Middle East. Nowhere is this more true than the toxic mindset and practices of Israeli crypto-totalitarianism. That’s what imperialism wants, to bring all its trouble home.
With that in mind let’s delve into the Salhani piece (he’s talking about Europe, while I’ll mostly talk about America, but I see these same processes playing out everywhere, and therefore examples specific to one place are usually generally applicable):

First of all, no prospective partner of the Brussels club can be allowed to join the European Union while it occupies territory that is not legally recognized as part of its own. Israel’s adhesion into the European Union would have to be preceded by a complete withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian forces from all Palestinian territory. That would mean that before such a withdrawal can happen a peace deal will have to be reached between the Palestinians and the Jewish State.

Or alternatively, they’d have to “legalize” this occupation, just like how the patently illegal war in Iraq was legalized. That’s the first “waiver” I thought he was hinting at.

Israel’s admission into the European Union would mean that the highways and security roads that Palestinians are not allowed to travel on would have to disappear. It would be inadmissible to have segregated roads in the European Union. Imagine if Italy, France or Germany, for example, banned certain ethnic groups from traveling on its national highways.

America already had the terrorist color code system where, under a red alert, highways and such may be arbitrarily shut down. They may have gotten rid of the colors, but the looming policy is still the same.
Of course, the movement to privatize American roads, to ration their use according to wealth, is already well underway.  Rendering non-luxuries artificially expensive and then rationing them by ability to pay the extortion price is just the same tyranny by another name.
And we don’t really have to imagine “certain ethnic groups” having a hard time on America’s highways. Racial profiling already accomplishes that.

The Separation Barrier (official United Nations designation) which Israel calls a “fence,” and Palestinians refer to as an “Apartheid Wall;” in reality a series of segments of a wall resembling the Berlin Wall, ditches and moats, erected between Israel proper and the West Bank to keep potential terrorists out, would have to come down. It would be unimaginable for a member of the EU to maintain such a symbol of segregation.

Of course our Mexico wall is well known.

Similarly the situation regarding Gaza would have to be resolved. Again, it is unimaginable for a European country to lay siege to a neighboring territory.

Lay siege to a neighborhood? LAPD, anyone? Speaking more generally, America is full of physical walls as well as less tangible boundaries aggressively patrolled by various kinds of goons. The siege itself may not yet be as coordinated as the mindset, but the mindset is every bit as aggressive as that in Israel. So it’s no wonder anyone who wants to build a physical wall looks to their example, and often to their contractors.

But that is not all. The whole concept of the European Union, the world’s largest economic and political zone, which saw the day shortly after the end of World War II, was to tie the economies of Europe’s countries in such a way that war would simply become unimaginable. Nations that spent centuries fighting each other – England and France, France and Germany, Germany and its neighbors to the east, and so on and so forth – began building the foundation to make those wars a thing of the past and inconceivable in the future. And it worked. Today war between once former foes in Europe is just not possible. To be sure, there may well be disagreements between members of the EU, but the disputes are settled in the European Parliament or at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Not on the battlefield any longer. This is an example from which the Middle East could greatly benefit.

The rhetoric here is reminiscent of Norman Angell’s sadly misguided utopia. But more truthfully, whether Salhani intends this reading or not, the coded message is clear: totalitarian repression prevents the Palestinians from fighting back against Israel. So we Western elites can all learn the lesson in our war upon our own people.
Salhani wraps it up:

Is any of this possible? Yes, would say the optimist in me, but with a caveat. Unilateral withdrawal from Arab lands is unrealistic and dangerous for the security of Israel. And Israel’s domestic and foreign policy is driven by its security needs. So the bottom line is this: If Israel wants to become a member of the European Union, even with all the backing of the Italian prime minister, and others, it would first have to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbors. And that is a good thing.

The realist in me says that paragraph proves that the whole idea’s a joke. He may be an Angell-style “optimist”, but the idea can have application only through its inversion. We don’t export peace to troubled regions, but import tyrannical methods of dealing with the trouble. We bring it home as our new, alien law.
Nietzsche knew the true nature of this alien anti-law, in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too, and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye and the sin against customs and rights.
Every people speaks its tongue of good and evil, which the neighbor does not understand. It has invented its own language of customs and rights. But the state tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil, and whatever it says, it lies, and whatever it has it has stolen. Everything about it is false; it bites with stolen teeth. Confusion of tongues of good and evil: this sign I give you as the sign of the state. This sign signifies the will to death.

Behold, how it lures them, and how it devours them, chews them, and ruminates!
“On earth there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I” – thus roars the monster.

That’s the corporatist state. There’s nothing organic about it, nothing national, nothing rooted in history, rooted in the soil, evolved out of ancient culture, there’s nothing human about it, and since it partakes of nothing human, it is not a Law for human beings, but an anti-law to destroy humanity and freedom. It is indeed a monster.
This is the false bureaucratic “law” of globalization. It’s the secretive pseudo-law of the WTO, the SPP, what the FTAA would have been and still will be if the neoliberals get their way. (Just yesterday I wrote about the pending “free” trade deal Obama’s pushing.) “Law” – directly administrative, administered by a bureaucratic machine and secret tribunals.

Dani Rodrik has posited the existence of a policy trilemma:

I have an “impossibility theorem” for the global economy that is like that. It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full…

To see why this makes sense, note that deep economic integration requires that we eliminate all transaction costs traders and financiers face in their cross-border dealings. Nation-states are a fundamental source of such transaction costs. They generate sovereign risk, create regulatory discontinuities at the border, prevent global regulation and supervision of financial intermediaries, and render a global lender of last resort a hopeless dream. The malfunctioning of the global financial system is intimately linked with these specific transaction costs.

So what do we do?

One option is to go for global federalism, where we align the scope of (democratic) politics with the scope of global markets. Realistically, though, this is something that cannot be done at a global scale. It is pretty difficult to achieve even among a relatively like-minded and similar countries, as the experience of the EU demonstrates.

Another option is maintain the nation state, but to make it responsive only to the needs of the international economy. This would be a state that would pursue global economic integration at the expense of other domestic objectives…. The collapse of the Argentine convertibility experiment of the 1990s provides a contemporary illustration of its inherent incompatibility with democracy.

Finally, we can downgrade our ambitions with respect to how much international economic integration we can (or should) achieve. So we go for a limited version of globalization, which is what the post-war Bretton Woods regime was about (with its capital controls and limited trade liberalization). It has unfortunately become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten the compromise embedded in that system, and which was the source of its success.

So I maintain that any reform of the international economic system must face up to this trilemma. If we want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty. Pretending that we can have all three simultaneously leaves us in an unstable no-man’s land.

Thus Dani Rodrik, an ardent globalizer himself, laid out the “trilemma”. How you can’t have democracy, national institutions, and free trade. At least one has to go.
But even this is in fact a distortion of the truth. The record proves that globalization cannot coexist with either sovereignty (except perhaps for the richest countries) or democracy (at all). By definition free trade is at war with democracy, and is either the aggressive weapon of or the assault upon any particular country, depending upon how wealthy it is.
When we look at Gitmo, at the secret CIA dungeon system; when we look at how in Iraq they established a lawless administrative zone similar to the Nazis’ General Government of Poland; when we look at the lawless “free trade zones” Klein writes about in No Logo and Shock Doctrine; when we look at the “supreme” court’s recent enemy combatant case laying the groundwork for gutting habeas corpus for all citizens, once and for all, forever (and what a contrast – within weeks of one another we have decisions declaring corporations to have total personal rights while actual flesh-and-blood people are to be legally declared unpersons; that juxtaposition proves we no longer have a legitimate judicial branch of government, but an abdicated rogue, but “still out in the field commanding troops [“Apocalypse Now”]); when we look at how vicious bankruptcy law became in 2005, how we inch ever closer to the restoration of debtors’ prisons (is that the real reason they’re so harsh with deadbeat dads? To set a precedent? Given the way the system acts in most other cases, gutting all social services, reducing contraception access etc., it’s hard to believe the sincere purpose is to be mother-friendly); when we look at these and far too many other examples, we see the net being cast around us.
I’ll finish with a consideration. Arendt, in discussing the British method of colonial rule, considers how oppression can either concentrate resistance or atomize it.

The British tried to escape the dangerous inconsistency inherent in the nation’s attempt at empire building by leaving the conquered peoples to their own devices as far as culture, religion, and law were concerned, by staying aloof and refraining from spreading British law and culture. This did not prevent the natives from developing national consciousness and from clamoring for sovereignty and independence – though it may have retarded the process somewhat. But it has strengthened tremendously the new imperialist consciousness of a fundamental, and not just a temporary, superiority of man over man, of the “higher” over the “lower” breeds….

They are in fact leaving to us pop culture, TV, sports, all that crap. And we still have our “religion” which clearly means nothing to anyone any longer. Indeed the churches shill for the system. For most it’s far more like Brave New World than 1984, though this will change as we sink back into serfdom.
In The True Believer Eric Hoffer compares resistance where there still exist social and cultural institutions, to circumstances where all such institutions have been liquidated, leaving behind only atomized individuals.

The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual’s identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of a compact party (the Communists) of a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individuals, whatever their nationality, caved in. The Western European Jew proved to be the most defenseless. Without vital ties with a Jewish community, he faced his tormentors alone. One realizes now that the ghetto of the Middle Ages was for the Jews more a fortress than a prison. Without the sense of utmost unity and distinctness which the ghetto imposed upon them, they could not have endured with unbroken spirit the violence and abuse of those dark centuries. When the Middle Ages returned for a brief decade in our day, they caught the Jew without his ancient defenses and crushed him.

The conclusion seems to be that when the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality. His only source of strength is in not being himself but part of something mighty, glorious, and indestructible. Faith here is primarily a process of identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal. Faith in humanity, in posterity, in the destiny of one’s religion, nation, race, party, or family – what is it but the visualization of that eternal something to which we attach the self that is about to be annihilated?

Do we now seek new institutions? Nietzsche asks in Twilight of the Idols:

In order that there may be institutions, there must be a kind of will, instinct, or imperative, which is anti-liberal to the point of malice: the will to tradition, to authority, to responsibility for centuries to come, to the solidarity of chains of generations, forward and backward to the horizons….

The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its “modern spirit” so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called “freedom”. That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery them moment the word “authority” is even spoken out loud. This is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end.

I add, today “the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats) for money and corporate power, while all “politicians” and “parties” who could and should have fought for the people have become traitors. All our institutions have been corrupted.
Today we must choose: human community or atomization? We have the socioeconomic atomization of the corporate system, and increasingly the physical and media barriers with the individual atomized inside. We must contrast this with real communities. Where these exist, even physical barriers may not be prisons, as Hoffer wrote.
I look back to the opening quote about Napoleon’s conquests. It presents the same decision – community consciousness or tyranny? Now that tyranny is coming home, and America faces the need for a second national awakening in the face of this tyranny, can this be done?
Do we still have a civic identity to rally round as at a banner? Can we raise this banner, and raise a call to it? Or are we washed up?

November 11, 2009

Morality Play

The Nation‘s Katrina Vanden Heuvel recently took part in a formal debate arguing against the resolution, “Good Riddance to the Mainstream Media”.
Her opening statement (part of a winning effort) describes the much-tarnished but still needed qualifications of the MSM; how it is the only vehicle for consistent investigative reportage, for confronting power, exposing corruption, filing transparency lawsuits, and how the collapse of regional newspapers correlates with signs of civic degradation like lower voter turnouts. While the MSM is fatally flawed and economically unsustainable, it’s still the only thing partially fulfilling those roles. So until we can develop a replacement, we have to lament the financial decline of the MSM just as much as we deplore its ideological sellout.
The economic deterioration of the business is certainly dire. According to reports, as of September weekday sales of print newspapers were down 10% over the previous year’s already depleted number. Ad revenue was down 28% percent from 2008, which was itself down 16.6% from the previous year. Beleaguered papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning news, NY Post, Boston Globe, and USA Today were down as much as 25.8%. The NYT’s weekday circulation went below one million for the first time since the 80s. Truly, “the two-decade erosion in newspaper circulation is looking more like an avalanche”.
In a vicious circle, as they cut back on content to save money, they lose more readers. (I can offer the personal anecdote that I stopped getting the Newark Star-Ledger (down 22.7%) for that reason. The old regional and local news value wasn’t there anymore. It was becoming more like an AP wire with a few New Jersey stories tacked on. Not to mention more and more frequent delivery SNAFUs.)
Vanden Heuvel mentions this in her statement:

[W]e’ve chronicled the msm’s corporate consolidation which –through the gutting of newsrooms in quest for ever higher profit margins–contributed to the journalistic crisis we confront today.

I would go further and say that the ideological capture I mentioned above is not only driven by this consolidation but contributes to the erosion of the audience, as the people increasingly realize how the MSM is only the flunkey of the power elites and tells only the story according to those elites.
Today’s (11/11) NYT business page has a bizarre specimen: “Under attack, Fed chairman studies politics”, by Edmund Andrews (of personal financial disaster fame). 
You have to see the fun in something like this to leaven the rage.

For months, he had warned — without anyone on Capitol Hill appearing to listen — that a seemingly innocuous bill to let Congress “audit” the Fed would gravely threaten the central bank’s independence.

Uh oh, there’s ominous foreshadowing. “Seemingly innocuous”; if only they’d listen to our brave, lonely hero’s warnings…

Voters had become suspicious and unnerved by the Fed because of its trillion-dollar efforts to bail out the financial system, Mr. Frank warned. If the Fed really wanted to survive the disgruntlement in both parties, he continued, Mr. Bernanke would have to step back and let him devise a compromise.

Reluctantly, the Fed chairman agreed to reduce his own visibility on the issue and let Mr. Frank take the lead.

Maybe it wasn’t literally a smoke-filled room (they’re all quite PC about that nowadays). But it’s still the age-old struggle of the wise mandarins against the stupid, insolent poltroons. The people get especially obnoxious when they become “voters” in a “democracy”. Kissinger would sympathize.

On one front, the Fed faces populist anger from both left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans about its power and secrecy.

Right. None of the criticism of the unaccountable, reckless, scofflaw Fed (from the Left, at least) is based on policy and democracy concerns. Gosh darn that soiled rag-wearing “populism”.

Mindful that Democrats now control the White House and Congress, Mr. Bernanke put up virtually no opposition to President Obama’s proposal for a new consumer agency that would take over the Fed’s authority over consumer lending issues. Similarly, he avoided a bruising turf battle by agreeing that the Fed would share responsibility with other regulators to monitor systemic financial risk.

This is a lie. The Fed has aggressively sought to protect and extend its turf throughout.
And if Bernanke didn’t know all along that Obama and Frank had his back on gutting the CFPA, so that he should just keep his mouth shut and let them handle the politics, he really is a political idiot in need of guidance.
Andrews goes on to describe how Bernanke protested against the Audit the Fed bill in “apocalyptic terms”, how critical Fed secrecy and autocracy are to the continued existence of civilization. It’s all the same terrorist language which has become all too familiar to us.
Directly contradicting what he said in the previous paragraph, Andrews also writes about how the “steely” Fed fought fiercely for its “role as undisputed overseer of financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail'”.
In other words, in spite of himself Bernanke confirmed the need for the auditing bill. And for Frank to take him under his political tutelage.

What Mr. Bernanke insisted on, and what Mr. Frank vowed to prevent, was Congressional interference in Fed deliberations over monetary policy.

But whenever discussion got more specific, Fed officials insisted that monetary policy extended to many if not most of the Fed’s emergency credit programs.

Mr. Frank said he would “wall off” deliberations on basic monetary policy, and delay the release of information about the Fed’s financial operations to prevent traders from capitalizing on its moves.

Exactly what that means in practice remains unclear. Mr. Paul says he is delighted that his bill has gotten so far. But details matter, and Fed officials say they are quietly confident details will break their way.

It’s very clear what this means. They’re going to keep the Fed/Wall Street casino party going. With this puff piece Andrews is doing his part in the eternal struggle against the people’s rights and well-being.
Even where they weren’t self-selected ideologues in the first place, most business journalists are by now, pretty much of necessity, cheerleaders for the growth ideology, market fundamentalism, corporatist politics. The coverage becomes ever more corporate friendly, told from the point of view of the rich, right down to the most petty details and annoyances of their lives. The economy is represented as a bundle of metrics, leading indicators like “growth” and the various exchanges, which mostly measure how well antisocial parasites are collecting rents. Everyone in government, business, and MSM agrees, this is “the” economy.
Meanwhile the real economic measures which don’t look good (and have not since the 90s) are relegated to the ghetto of “lagging indicators”. This term still reflects the thousand-times-refuted-but-never-relinquished trickle down ideology.
When the lagging jobs indicator becomes too disastrous to dismiss, as it now has, with real unemployment at 17.5% and even the rigged anodyne U3 number over 10% (both of these at their highest in close to thirty years), the nabobs of positivity are left helpless. They can only gawk and stutter about how somehow the administration and Wall Street will figure out something.
So the MSM has been doing its best with the increasingly crappy material corporate fundamentalism hands them, and does the gratitude at least come through in the advertising rates? As I mentioned earlier, these continue to decline. Even where advertising volume is creeping back up, it’s mostly according to a cheaper ad run strategy, so MSM ad revenues are still moribund. How’s that “trickling down” for ya?
So all the MSM’s prostitution has availed them little. As they say, “the revolution devours its own children”.
What went wrong? Weren’t they serviceable villains enough?
Perhaps it’s not just the advertising model. Perhaps there’s a hopeful sign here. Perhaps the people are finally starting to see through this charade. Perhaps they’re coming to realize that the MSM is not telling our story, but the story of those who affilict us, and for those who afflict us, and telling it against us, in order to further hurt us.
Recently the NYT’s David Carr, one of Vanden Heuvel’s teammates at the debate, wrote of the malaise of the business press.
He discusses how, with the green shoots allegedly sprouting all over the place, the attitudes are getting bullish again. But what does this mean for the business press itself?

So you might expect the business press to be striking up the band and restocking the cigar cabinet. Instead, Forbes, a magazine that sells a beau idéal of capitalism, announced last week that it was cutting a quarter of its already decimated staff. The Wall Street Journal’s Boston bureau — historically a hothouse of game-changing business coverage — is being closed.

Fortune magazine had already cut back to 18 issues a year from 25 and this week will be whacking anew at staff along with other Time Inc. magazines. BusinessWeek was sold for parts to Bloomberg a few weeks ago.

So, while the business of business may be back, the business of covering it with heroic narratives and upbeat glossy spreads most certainly is not. And probably never will be.

Carr mentions the usual suspects, advertising, the shrinking pains of cost cutting and so on. But he ponders whether the fundamental premise has lost its mojo.

But it isn’t just that Cadillacs aren’t selling like they used to. It’s also that the people who made them, bought them and drove them seem far more mortal and less interesting than they did just a few years ago.

Business magazines used to relish explaining all the complex new financial instruments that Wall Street was using to pile up profits. But now it has become clear that the titans who were wielding those obscure tools had no idea what they were doing — even less an idea than the journalists in some cases.

And the fact that they needed billions and billions in taxpayer money to bail them out has left the former Masters of the Universe with all the social cachet of welfare recipients. In fact, people on welfare seem more deserving now that some of the rescued have come roaring back just in time for year-end bonuses.

They don’t make ’em like they used to. If this media too has to be star-driven, like all American media, they’re facing a real problem now that Americans are finally starting to wise up.
It was always stupid to idolize businessmen as if they were celebrity entertainers, but as long as Americans believed they were all getting richer, and believed in the Randian myth of the rugged, self-reliant capitalist, such idolatry could provide the basis for a wide press circulation. If that readership is now evaporating as fast as it should be, this most corporate of media may be in trouble.

It’s not that the public has lost its appetite for stories about handsome men in three-piece suits who clink whiskey glasses at the end of a long, not-so-hard day while talking smack about their female co-workers. But “Mad Men” pretty much sates that need. The businessman as Colossus is by now a nostalgic impulse…

But if the consequences are removed from the equation and the feds are there to cushion any downside, riding the upside seems less magical. Writers and editors who cover business now know that the jig is up, that those bespoke suits are put on one leg at a time by men that seem far less Olympian than they once did….

Business coverage has been, at its heart, aspirational, a brand promise that suggests that if you clip the right articles, internalize the right rhetoric, then you too will end up as one of the shiny, happy people striding boldly across the pages of magazines with names like Fortune, Money, Fast Company and Wired. But nobody is going to read, let alone aspire to, magazines called Middled, Outsourced, Left Behind and Clobbered. It’s as if American business has lost custody of its own story….

But people could be forgiven for not believing in business, or business news, the way they used to.

If a recovery is under way, most Average Joes are not buying in or benefiting so far. On Friday, the Commerce Department said consumer spending actually dropped in September, the first time it had gone down in five months, and the Dow buckled 2.5 percent at the end of trading last week. Consumers clearly lack confidence in the recovery, and, by extension, the people who are supposed to make it happen. And doubt doesn’t sell magazines.

In The Joyful Science Nietzsche made an interesting remark on the rise of socialism. He knew little about economics or politics (and cared less) but thought he could descry a spiritual and aesthetic factor.

Soldiers and leaders still have far better relationships with each other than workers and employers. So far at least, culture that rests on a military basis still towers above all so-called industrial culture: the latter in its present shape is altogether the most vulgar form of existence yet. Here one is at the mercy of brute need; one has to live and has to sell oneself, but one despises those who exploit this need and buy the worker. Oddly, submission to powerful, frightening, even terrible persons, like tyrants and generals, is not experienced as nearly so painful as is this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, which is what all the luminaries of industry are.

What the workers see in the employer is usually only a cunning, bloodsucking dog of a man who speculates on all misery; and the employer’s name, shape, manner, and reputation are a matter of complete indifference to them. The manufacturers and entrepreneurs of business have been too deficient in all those forms and signs of nobility that alone make a person interesting. If the nobility of birth showed in their eyes and gestures, there might not be any socialism of the masses. For at bottom the masses are willing to submit to slavery of any kind, if only the higher-ups constantly legitimize themselves as higher, as born to command – by having noble manners. The most common man feels that nobility cannot be improvised and that one has to honor in it the fruit of long periods of time.

But the lack of higher manners and the notorious vulgarity of manufacturers with their ruddy, fat hands give him the idea that it is only accident and luck that have elevated one person above another. Well then, he reasons: let us try accident and luck! Let us throw the dice! And thus socialism is born.

While that may fall short of Marxian rigor, I think there is some truth to it. The people have always sought to find ways to idolize and romanticize their socioeconomic “betters”, if only to rationalize their own failure to rise up and assert themselves. But if the faltering business press is a different kind of leading indicator, perhaps this idolatry is no longer tenable, and a different sort of rational process is commencing.
Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism, described an interesting historical moment similar to our own.

The historian is in most such cases confronted with a very complex historical situation where he is almost at liberty, and that means at a loss, to isolate one factor as “the spirit of the time”. There are, however, a few helpful general rules. Foremost among them for our purpose is Tocqueville’s great discovery (in L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution) of the motives for the violent hatred felt by the French masses for the aristocracy at the outbreak of the Revolution – an outbreak which stimulated Burke to remark that the revolution was more concerned with “the condition of a gentleman” than with the institution of a king.

According to Tocqueville, the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any appreciable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country. In other words, neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated.

Substitute the lost belief in the economic and social function of Wall Street and the rackets, which we now know to be 100% fraudulent, destructive, and parasitic, for the lost political prerogatives of the Ancien Regime, and we have the same dynamic. Tremendous, and utterly worthless, and purely malevolent, wealth concentration.
Lucretius felt the change of the world in his time, the great republic riding to the height
Whence every road leads downward; Plato in his time watched Athens
Dance the down path. The future is a misted landscape, no man sees clearly, but at cyclic turns
There is a change felt in the rhythm of events, as when an exhausted horse
Falters and recovers, then the rhythm of the running hoofbeats is changed: he will run miles yet,
But he must fall….
Robinson Jeffers, Prescription of Painful Ends

October 14, 2009

Cycles (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 Morals. My purpose in going through this is to explore how humanity first came to see itself as a social being with social responsibilities. I’m not claiming N’s essay is the most important thing ever written on the subject, but it offers a thought-provoking point of entry, so I’m starting there.
In section one we saw how primal humanity’s capacity to make a promise prerequired the development of a “memory of the will”. This had to overcome our innate faculty of active forgetting. It rendered us “calculable, regular, necessary”. Now I’ll continue with section two.
How did man become calculable and necessary in his actions? It was only through the long process of what N called the morality of mores.
..the labor performed by man upon himself during the greater part of the existence of the human race, his entire prehistoric labor, finds in this its meaning, its great justification, notwithstanding the severity, tyranny, stupidity, and idiocy involved in it: with the aid of the morality of mores and the social straitjacket, man was actually made calculable.
The morality of mores is the primal world view centered on mystery, ritual, taboo, fierce adherence to the traditions or else the rains won’t come. It’s the time of obsession with an inscrutable supernatural, and the brute cause and effect reasoning which assumes that only obsessive fealty to the rituals can appease the terrible forces of fate. This is assumed first out of hope and desperation and later, as power grows, out of self-assertiveness and the feeling of power. (N gets to this later in the essay.)
For thousands of years men judged according to supernatural and ritualistic causes and effects, and the rituals were meant to render the effects calculable and necessary. In the process the human psyche was melted and hammered and bent and distorted until it took shape.
In a dialectical gyre the rituals tightened tribal cohesion and empowered tribal, ritual promising. These promises bolstered the individual’s sense of self and made him more firm and reliable in his ritual promises. 
The tribal social man emerged, and out of him, the “ripest fruit” of the whole process: the sovereign individual. This is the free spirit, the free individual, the “attempter”. He is “autonomous and supramoral”, and only he has “the right to make promises”.
This free individual as a promiser: Nietzsche describes him only as a potentiality. He doesn’t say what should be promised, and at the fundamental level it’s not a social ideal. Rather, individual integrity is prior to and is the presupposition of social integrity.
The individual promiser looks out and judges from his own “measure of value”. He promises slowly, unhurried, sparely, rarely. It’s part of his honor that once he gives his word he keeps it “even in the face of fate”.
Responsibility is the necessary human quality which underlies all the others.
“The free man..possesses his measure of value.” Freedom imposes responsibilities to live up to this measure of value.
The proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, this power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct. What will he call this dominating instinct, supposing he feels the need to give it a name? The answer is beyond doubt: the sovereign man calls it his conscience.
“The extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom”, this power over fate, this dominating instinct: It is the free human being’s conscience. Now, wielding this freedom, people are able to contract and dispose social responsibilities. Only debts contracted under such conditions of freedom are valid, and only among free and legitimate authorities. But…
Only a free human being can have a conscience, and only through exercising a conscience can you remain free.
Only the existentially free can have a conscience:
A slave cannot. He can’t promise and he can’t fulfill, so in the name of what action could he exercise integrity? (By “slave” I refer to those born cowardly and conformist, regardless of the outward political form. A born, existential slave will always be a slave under any political circumstances, while one born free will always exercise and fight for freedom no matter what.)
He cannot own a principle, as he is himself “owned” (literally by the system, or by his own self-enslavement).
Only the exercise of conscience can make you free:
The reason those born slave-like submit to being enslaved in practice (either de facto, as in our corporate system, or de jure) is because no conscience forces them to fight. Nothing forces them to say, I’d rather die than submit to this wretched and ignoble existence.
Unfortunately this is all we see today in our political and media “leaders”, and even among most “activists”. The great revolutionary promise of the sovereign individual was supposed to be that freedom would transcend itself, that autonomous individuals, precisely because they so cherished this great gift of sovereignty, would assume the highest social responsibilities, since only in this way could they preserve and augment the aggregate freedom. The public freedom, the highest form of politics, should be the apotheosis of the human condition. This is the highest social manifestation of N’s will to power.
What went wrong? Concentrated wealth, especially the concentrations afforded by fossil fuels, machine technology, and the capitalist mode of organization, allowed the slave mentality (as slave to materialism, greed, powerlust) to hijack autonomy and debase it to sociopathy. Freedom degenerated to promiscuity. Liberty became license and the “right” to be a private vandal. Public, positive freedom was rejected and overridden by the bourgeois primacy of private subsistence. The citizen devolved into a consumer. the idealist prostituted himself to materialism. Every “promise” became a lie.
This decadent civilization has lost the ability to promise, has squandered it. There’s no legitimacy left, no authority. God is dead, religion, government, law, business, ideology, nationalism, tribalism….All debased beyond recognition; just hideous cackling caricatures of themselves in a haunted house of mirrors now in the process of burning down even as everyone still staggers about inside, laughing and crying, drunk.
If we are ever to be able to promise again, we need a complete renewal, rebirth, renaissance. This will have to start with a new morality of mores.
The old civilization has been completely hollowed out by its rot. Its dollar and Predator Drone delusions still prop it up for the moment. But everything is decaying. That’s the only exponential curve still steepening. That’s the only debt curve still vibrant. Peak Oil and the end of exponential debt will only be the secular and physical confirmations of the great spriritual event: The immolation of the modernist “tribe” on the pyre of its own burning altar, upon which it stacked far too many sacrificial twigs.
What will it mean to start anew, as a new tribe? We can’t foresee the exact character of the new forms. These will no doubt be extemporaneously dictated by the tempo of the flames and the motions of those running through them.
But as we emerge, we’ll emerge with a new ritual, a new credo, a new way of living. This morality of mores will sing the song of the next circle of society and promise, debt and delight, responsibility and right, family and freedom, law and liberty.

October 2, 2009

Robinson Jeffers: “Apology For Bad Dreams”

Filed under: Marx, Nietzsche — Tags: — Russ @ 6:47 pm
In my post on Nietzsche and Science I mentioned Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Apology For Bad Dreams”. In this post I want to offer some thoughts and impressions from this poem.
Jeffers was intimately familiar with the concept of the Dionysian, though I don’t recall his using that term for it. The Dionysian, as formulated by Nietzsche, is an idea, a vista, and a moral vision. It’s a union of philosophy and poetry which captures the beauty and terror of history in one philosophical moment. It’s the idea of affirming all that is terrible in life rather than denying it, rather than cursing the world on account of it. Of maintaining good will, integrity, and even good cheer as we fight our way through the troubles which beset us, not by having “faith” in some divine plan or justice which will set it all right, but by affirming the necessity of the whole.
This doesn’t mean failing to take the action we must take, it means seeing our action as well as one beauteous part of the logical whole, even if other parts seem ugly from our point of view.
Perhaps we need this today more than ever. Today is the age where “Nihilism stands at the door” (N, The Will to Power, section 1). God is dead, and ideology’s attempts to replace it have only accelerated the horror. Between mass religion and totalitarian science (with mass politics always some smothering combination of these) the human soul is crushed. All now serve the corporation, and underlying that the vicious monetizing filth.
Mass democracy has utterly failed, has been drowned in the poison of corporate totalitarianism.
Will the collapse of the pseudo-civilization based on fossil fuel and exponential debt offer any way toward redemption?
At any rate, the one idea which can offer hope to lead us through the conflagrations and the darknesses of our midnights is the Dionysian resolve. The humanism this always offers us is our will to creativity. This is what Nietzsche called sublimation.
N recalled that his very first “philosophical trifle”, written when he was around 13, tackled the ancient question of theodicy. Even at that age he went right for the jugular and gave the only answer integrity can possibly give: if god is omnipotent, then all evil is his own evil. And why would god want evil in the world? N revisited the question in Zarathustra, “On the Afterworldly”:
The work of a suffering and tortured god, the world then seemed to me. A dream the world then seemed to me, and the fiction of a god: colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity. Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you – colored smoke before creative eyes. The creator wanted to look away from himself; so he created the world.
It’s drunken joy for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself. Drunken joy and loss of self the world once seemed to me. This world, eternally imperfect, the image of an eternal contradiction, an imperfect image – a drunken joy for its imperfect creator: thus the world once appeared to me.
Thus I too once cast my delusion beyond man, like all the afterworldly.
The essence of the Dionysian world view is to bring this artist’s affirmation and will back to the human, back to the worldly. We can still create, as thinkers, as artists, as activists, without denying this world in the process, whether it be as religious or as secular utopians, “drunken” either way. There’s a great German word, aufheben, beloved of German philosophers, which combines the meanings of do away with, carry along with you, and preserve. It means to acknowledge and remember even as you transcend and overcome.
So the Dionysian thinker and activist affirms this world even as he strives to change it. A similar concept is that of the renaissance, literally “rebirth”, which combines the best senses of restoration and revolution, while “revolution”, in its original 18th century political sense, meant a “revolving back” to restore the natural order of things. It did not mean to turn things upside down, but to set them back right side up. Marx’s philosophy was “revolutionary” in exactly this sense, seeking to turn the Hegelian philosophy, including its reactionary political end state, “right side up”.
Well, that was a short musing on some of the places we can go with this idea. But now to Robinson Jeffers. “Apology for Bad Dreams” is his most passionate statement of his artistic credo (his apologia, that is, explanation – “apology” here doesn’t mean saying “I’m sorry” for anything), his idea of art as a way to sublimate one’s own imperfections and deal with the horrors of the world. To try to combine one’s personal tragedy and the greater tragedies of existence into a contribution, however small, to the beauty of the universe.
(I couldn’t find this poem entire online; it’s not yet in the public domain, evidently. But any good pre-war anthology will have it. I’ll be reproducing much of it as I go along.)
In the purple light, heavy with redwood, the slopes drop seaward,
Headlong convexities of forest, drawn in together to the steep ravine. Below, on the sea-cliff,
A lonely clearing; a little field of corn by the streamside; a roof under spared trees. Then the ocean
Like a great stone someone has cut to a sharp edge and polished to shining. Beyond it, the fountain
And furnace of incredible light shining up from the sunk sun….
The beauty and immensity, which includes the little cornfield and house. The people should be beautiful as well.
In the little clearing a woman
Is punishing a horse; she had tied the halter to a sapling at the edge of the wood, but when the great whip
Clung to the flanks the creature kicked so hard she feared he would snap the halter; she called from the house
The young man her son; who fetched a chain tie-rope, they working together
Noosed the small rusty links round the horse’s tongue
And tied him by the swollen tongue to the tree.
Seen from this height they are shrunk to insect size.
Out of all human relation….
….You can see the whip fall on the flanks,
The gesture of the arm. You cannot see the face of the woman.
They are the petty, the mean, the ugly. What’s far worse than true, stark evil, is everyday, swarming meanness and ugliness.
The enormous light beats up out of the west across the cloudbars of the trade-wind. The ocean
Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together. Unbridled and unbelievable beauty
Covers the evening world…not covers, grows apparent out of it, as Venus down there grows out
From the lit sky. What said the prophet? “I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.”
It’s an image of petty human cruelty amid the vastness of uncivilization, indifferent, unconscious nature, the broken rocks and sea,  the grandeur, beauty, and immensity, Earth’s expression of infinity. The most radical contrast.
This is life, reality, but as related in a poem, also an image, a phantom. It offers the metaphor of “the Lord”. This is perhaps the idea of unconscious nature but also, as it becomes conscious, the poet himself. This tableau is a creation of the artist god, creating victims. This becomes more explicit later on.
This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places,
(The quiet ones ask for quieter suffering: but here the granite cliff the gaunt cypresses crown
Demands what victim? The dikes of red lava and black what Titan? The hills like pointed flames
Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun, what immolation?)
This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places: and like the passionate spirit of humanity
Pain for its bread: God’s, many victims’, the painful deaths, the horrible transfigurements…
The cold, infinite beauty seems to imply the greatest pains, evils, tragedies. We sense historical infinity, what can metaphorically be called the demand for victims. With this anthropomorphic thought we confront ourselves amid nature. In this personified world beauty and tragedy go hand in hand, but is this an immutable condition of intelligent life? Of life in general? (Unless we’re mystics, we know there’s no such thing as “tragedy” except in our minds, so it’s a condition of intelligent life. But could we ever imagine a place, a universe, where life existed but this wasn’t so? Beauty without tragedy? Or, no beauty and therefore no tragedy? Some seem to want this.)
At any rate, this much is true of the human condition, it demands “pain for its bread”, it demands the tragedy itself. It’s redolent of Wagner’s Liebestod, love-through-death.
…I said in my heart,
“Better invent than suffer: imagine victims
Lest your own flesh be chosen the agonist, or you
Martyr some creature to the beauty of the place.” And I said,
“Burn sacrifices once a year to magic
Horror away from the house, this little house here
You have built over the ocean with your own hands
Beside the standing boulders: for what are we,
The beast that walks upright, with speaking lips
And little hair, to think that we should always be fed,
Sheltered, intact, and self-controlled? We sooner more liable
Than the other animals….”
But we can sublimate this demand, we can eat the bread of art. This is the sacrifice through sublimation. Most of all the creator of art sacrifices of himself in this way through creation rather than through destruction, of himself or others. (Too bad capitalistic “creative destruction” isn’t like this.)
That’s why humanity created art: not audience catharsis, but the sublimation of human greatness.
And Jeffers even wonder if perhaps (through what – some notion of karma?) this can help avoid victimization from without as well. At any rate, to help achieve freedom from fear, a psychological reality.
….Pain and terror, the insanities of desire; not accidents but essential,
And crowd up from the core:” I imagined victims for those wolves, I made them phantoms to follow,
They have hunted the phantoms and missed the house. It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spirit
Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness.
It’s no joke, although civilization tries to make it so, or reduce it to a nuisance. Man’s unrest, the evils and pain, are essential to him. We must create victims, or else be murderers and cannibals. We’re always close to the edge, “pain and terror are essential”. The creator’s mission is most critical, for this grapples with the core of the human tragedy. The Dionysian mission, the exuberant will to face even the most evil, fearful truths with courage and affirmation, to transform all the tremblings of fear to vibrations of life.
Verse three pictures primeval man amid the shoreline boulders, a creator of gods and art as he first generates the fire.
Here the granite flanks are scarred with ancient fire, the ghosts of the tribe
Crouch in the nights beside the ghost of a fire…..
….These have paid something for the future
Luck of the country, while we living keep old griefs in memory: though God’s
Envy is not a likely fountain of ruin, to forget evils calls down
Sudden reminders from the cloud: remembered deaths be our redeemers;
Imagined victims our salvation……
We must not “forget evils”, but rather “keep old griefs in memory” (but not necessarily as those griefs). The primeval tribesmen (we imagine them as ghosts, “by the ghost of a fire”) did their part, and we must remember in order to do our part.
Perhaps it’s all superstition. Perhaps, although our intellect and reason have grown, we’re still at our core immature and mystical, still on some level primeval, still the ghosts of the primal fire. The phantoms we create suspend the ghosts, are suspensions of the ghost, a living thread which connects us retrospectively with that primal night, circling the flame. 
This memory faculty and creative forgetting brings me back to Nietzsche and his second essay in Genealogy of Morals, and the posts I started writing about that essay. (A series I’ll be continuing soon.)
That’s the key to the kind of memory we need, the kind of debt we owe. Meanwhile Jeffers recalls his own tragic creation from an earlier poem, a small attempt of his to help redeem humanity, all we have suffered, through art.
….white as the half-moon at midnight
Someone flamelike passed me, saying, “I am Tamar Cauldwell, I have my desire,”
Then the voice of the sea returned, when she had gone by, the stars to their towers…..
Now we come to J’s theology and theodicy (meaning his Dionysian mythology).
He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor
From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God.
He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,
Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,
He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it
Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.
I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me
In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,
Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,
And here am I moving the stars that are me.”
Man’s creation of god, and through this god’s of man, and of the sublimation of the will to power, art, thought, invention, striving, dreaming, “bad dreaming”….
I have seen these ways of God: I know of no reason
For fire and change and torture and the old returnings.
He being sufficient might be still. I think they admit no reason; they are the ways of my love.
We can forget the Judeo-Christian moralizations. The idea of god is to give us an ideal to strive toward, and through whom to understand our ambitions and sufferings and tell them to ourselves. God as the reflection of man, god the ultimate artist, and god as man’s greatest work of art.
God as the artistic torturer of man: The most horrible and majestic thought of all, this be the key to theodicy. And man as the artist, and the creator of his own victims. This is the key to peace on earth.
Then we reach capitulation at the end, acknowledgement that humanity is a jumble of “power, passion, craft”. There’s nothing metaphysical inside, no god outside; our thoughts, our theology, our science, just “measures of phenomena” (description, not explanation), and our best measure of it all is simply aesthetic.
We only need sufficient understanding, just enough, and then the will to create a new world.
Unmeasured power, incredible passion, enormous craft: no thought apparent but burns darkly
Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault: no thought outside: a certain measure in phenomena:
The fountains of the boiling stars, the flowers on the foreland, the ever-returning roses of dawn. 

September 5, 2009

Nietzsche and Science (Scientism 3 of 5)

Filed under: Nietzsche, Peak Oil, Scientism/Technocracy — Tags: , , , , — Russ @ 4:17 am
This post will trace the development of Nietzsche’s ideas on science and its relation to the human condition. I’m writing about this both because I think it’s intrinsically interesting (and helps me clarify my own ideas on both N and science) and because I believe that more than any other thinker N has analyzed our predicament and can help us find our way through the maze.
In particular for our purposes today, N was rare among great modern thinkers in considering science as such to be problematic. It was N’s way to be ambivalent toward almost everything important, and as we know today this ambivalence should have been modern man’s default from the outset. Instead, to our misfortune, the opposite – uncritical enthusiasm, triumphalism, progress dogma, political and technological conformism – has been the norm.
Now we confront the great resultant energetic, environmental, and spiritual crises which inevitably followed. To Peak Oil, resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity eradication, and land monopoly we can add spiritual desolation.
Whether or not humanity survives will depend in large part on reassessing all this.
Texts for the works cited in this piece can be found here, except for On the Genealogy of Morals which will be found here.
I’ll use the following abbreviations:
BT: The Birth of Tragedy, 1886 preface
HH: Human, All Too Human
GS: The Gay Science
Z: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
BGE: Beyond Good and Evil
GM: On the Genealogy of Morals
TI: Twilight of the Idols
WP: The Will to Power (posthumously edited notes)
1. The basic dilemma of science: As Nietzsche came to see it retrospectively, the questing intellect was his core concern right from his first book, BT (1872), even though in that book he wrote mostly about art.
The question, as reframed in his 1886 preface, was Why should the ancient Greeks, the most healthy and vibrant people ever, have “needed tragedy” [BT 1]? Greek tragedy expressed the ruthless will to look fate directly in the eye, without flinching from all of its most frightening and horrible aspects. It was something which could induce pessimism. Why should the exuberant Greeks have embraced something so pessimistic? Could it have been precisely the “overfullness” of their spirit, a surplus of health and exuberance, which drove them to confront and affirm even the most terrible aspects of life? Was this a “pessimism of strength”? This is the core of what by 1886 N called the Dionysian. (In the 1872 BT the term “Dionysian” was used differently, to signify tempestuous, chaotic release of passion, while “Apollonian” meant calm, restrained spiritual expression; N’s eventual concept of the Dionysian was a synthesis of the two, passion under control, and was counterpoised to “the Crucified”, the Christian drive to eradicate passion completely.)
By contrast, what must have changed in the Greeks that they lost their strong, pessimistic will to confront the tragic, and instead embraced anodyne Socratic equations of rationality with virtue and happiness? Why did this new rational outlook accompany an ever more attenuated spiritual and artistic life? Was this a symptom of spiritual exhaustion, of decadence? The pessimism of strength seemed dead and replaced by a picayune urge to comfort oneself. And what was the significance of the development of science in all this?
That of which tragedy died, the Socratism of morality, the dialectics, frugality, and cheerfulness of the theoretical man – might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of weariness, of infection, of an anarchical dissolution of the instincts? And the “Greek cheerfulness” of the later Greeks – merely the afterglow of the sunset? The Epicureans’ resolve against pessimism – a mere precaution of the afflicted? And science itself, our science – what is the significance of all science, viewed as a symptom of life? For what – worse yet, toward what – all science? Is the resolve to be so scientific about everything perhaps a fear of, an escape from, pessimism? A subtle last resort against – truth? Morally speaking, a sort of cowardice and falseness? Amorally speaking, a ruse? [BT 1]
So we have the question posed. Has scientism been a symptom of man’s spiritual decadence, as he lost the will to the pessimism of strength, the vibrant outlook of tragic pessimism? This question became more pressing with the twin and interlinked developments of modern times: the total erosion of Western religious faith, and the domination of technology. Today science really can make a bid to supersede religion and become the new religion.
At the end of this post I’ll return with N to the hopes for a revitalization of the pessimism of strength. First we have to explore the downward paths of anodyne rationalism and its paradoxical culmination in the abnegation of Christian morality.
Before this we confront a pivotal question: can science and reason justify themselves?
2. In post 1 I explored Nietzsche’s flirtation with the self-justification of science in HH. As I said there, he kept exploring this issue, eventually rejecting the bootstraps position and, in GS 344 (1885), giving his definitive answer:
To make it possible for this discipline to begin, must there not be some prior conviction – even one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictons to itself? We see that science also rests on a faith. The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth.”
The root of this is not even the utilitarian will not to let oneself be deceived, since we cannot know the practical extent to which truth is more useful than deception. No, the root is the moral will against deception, of others or of ourselves.
Thus the question “Why science” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature, and history are “not moral”? Those who are truthful in the ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world” – must they not by that same token negate this world, our world?..
It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire from the flame that was lit by a faith thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine anymore unless it were error, blindness, the lie – if God himself were to prove to be our most enduring lie?
This is the underlying, true justification for science, a moral justification, the idealization of “truth”, which originated in Christian theology. The will to truth means the will to another world. “Will to truth” has the same source as belief in god. And now that god is dead, what about will to truth?
Thus we see the religious basis of the “moral” faith in science, the faith always cited by apologists for the real-world corporate activity of technicians.
(And in turn, scientism seeks to extend this faith and this apologia to the instrumentalist corporate practice itself. Science in the abstract, “pure science”, is morally justified. Then “applied science”, science as the sociopathic tool of corporate power, and the practice of technicians as a self-driving nihilistic process, are piggybacked on this original truth morality. Thus we have the ideology of scientism.)
N continued to explore this question for the rest of his life but did not change his answer. His assessment in GM essay III, section 24 (1887) is the same. These “men of knowledge”, these “philosophers and scholars”, the “last idealists of knowledge in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells and is incarnate today…They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth.
N regarded this as a manifestation of the “ascetic ideal”, the will to negation of diversity in experience and passion, again an outgrowth of religiosity. The idealists are not free spirits because they remain bound by faith in truth. They are fanatics about it.
That which constrains these men, this unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even as an unconscious imperative – it is the faith in a metaphysical value, the absolute value of truth, sanctioned and guaranteed by this ideal alone (it stands or falls with this ideal)…. 
….A philosophy, a “faith”, must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a right to exist. 
Science itself henceforth requires justification (which is not to say there is any such justification). Consider on this question both the earliest and most recent philosophers: they are all oblivious of how much the will to truth itself first requires justification; here there is a lacuna in every philosophy – how did this come about? Because the ascetic ideal has hitherto dominated all philosophy, because the truth was posited as being, as God, as the highest court of appeal – because truth was not permitted to be a problem at all. Is this “permitted” understood? – From the moment faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, a new problem arises: that of the value of truth.
The will to truth requires a critique – let us thus define our own task – the value of truth must for once be experimentally called into question. 
Just as the Judeo-Christian morality, as an absolute, taken for granted, stands or falls with belief in the Judeo-Christian god, so does the value of truth, and the pursuit which stems from it, science.
Scientism has attempted to elide this “lacuna” and substitute itself for the missing god. But in the same way that the fossil fuel civilization cannot continue to run as it has without cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, and no cornucopian technological dreams will change that, so the Christian civilization, including its scientistic/technocratic manifestation, cannot continue as it has without the religious faith which built it, and no synthesized cult of scientism/technocracy can change that.
As N said, truly free human beings must experimentally call it all into question. Peak Oil shall afford this opportunity.
Some other sections pertinent on this point:
BT 2: We must confront “the problem of science itself, science considered for the first time as problematic, as questionable….to look at science in the perspective of the artist, but at art in that of life.”
TI (1888)”The Problem of Socrates” 10: “When one finds it necessary to turn reason into a tyrant, the danger cannot be slight that something else will play the tyrant.”
WP: 424 (on forms of scientific hypocrisy, denying the underlying presumptions), 440 (on how scientific training can either help one resist sloppy faith concepts, or on the contrary render one more susceptible)
Here we stand at the inherent nature of science/rationalism/scholarship. We have the highest respect for it in itself. But where does it lead? There can be no question: the pursuit of knowledge leads to our trying to fabricate something beyond knowledge. As human beings we cannot do any differently. The question is whether this fabrication is decadent or sublimatory.
We’ll first have to head further downward before we can ascend.
3. Science, which is supposed to embody not just technical but spiritual progress, has perhaps on the contrary been one of humanity’s refuges from life, once the pessimism of strength began to erode. Perhaps “progress” itself, the progress cult, far from representing a greater capacity to grapple with the knots of being, has instead really been an escapist cult.
In GM III:23 Nietzsche asked, has science been able to posit its own goal to replace the ascetic ideal?
They tell me it is not lacking, it has not merely waged a long and successful fight against this ideal, it has already conquered this ideal in all important respects: all of modern science is supposed to bear witness to that – modern science which, as a genuine philosophy of reality, clearly believes in itself alone, clearly possesses the courage for itself and the will to itself, and has up to now survived well enough without God, the beyond, and the virtues of denial. Such noisy agitators’ chatter, however, does not impress me…..the abyss of the scientific conscience does not speak through them – for today the scientific conscience is an abyss – the word “science” in the mouths of such trumpeters is simply an indecency and a piece of impudence. The truth is the opposite of what is asserted here: science today has no belief in itself, let alone an ideal above it – and where it still inspires passion, love, ardor, and suffering at all, it is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it.
Contrary to the pretensions of scientism, science has not imposed itself upon civilization as a self-generated, confident ideal, but has only furtively recycled the dregs of the old religious faith, albeit on a nobler intellectual level.
And for many of its practitioners it does not even do that: 
..But that one works rigorously in the sciences and that there are contented workers does not prove that science as a whole possesses a goal, a will, an ideal, or the passion of a great faith. The opposite is the case, to repeat: where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal – and the exceptions [those who truly do find a self-justifying creative ideal in science itself] are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition – science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, bad conscience – it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment.
Oh, what does science not conceal today? How much, at any rate, is it meant to conceal! The proficiency of our finest scholars, their heedless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship – how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself! Science as a means of self-narcosis: do you have experience of that?
…sufferers who refuse to admit to themselves what they are, drugged and heedless men who fear only one thing: regaining consciousness.
This kind of cubicle-dweller is familiar enough nowadays, though like so much else of Nietzsche’s prescience, it wasn’t understood in his own time.
But the technocratic ideology allows those cubicle-dwellers and rat-racers and treadmill-walkers in the “sciences” to comfort themselves that they work on behalf of some grand ideal rather than as the same old corporate cog.
BGE (1886) 204-208 provides a more detailed dossier on the modern scholar, “solid man of science”, specialist, “scientific average man”, “objective spirit”, “ideal scholar”, “selfless man”, the weak and degenerate form of skeptic, the weakling interpretation of Hamlet; these are all contrasted with the true creative philosopher, the stronger, harder skepticism, the pessimism of strength. (I’ll get to this contrast at the end of this post.)
204: The scientist affects superiority over the philosopher – either because philosophy hasn’t found the final answers yet, or out of disillusionment with some particular philosopher, or because often philosophy itself has abdicated. (Transposed to conformity vs. activism, these are all familiar in the politics of today.)
206: The scientist is not self-reliant or noble, spiritually or intellectually. (We can add, economically.) We see the “Jesuitism of mediocrity…which seeks to break every bent bow or, preferably, to unbend it.”
Bent bow – the uncommon man, the free spirit.
Break it – what religion or totalitarianism would seek to do.
“Unbend” it – “reason”, liberalism, scientism.
207: “Objective spirit” – weak, threadbare, may have good will but the flesh is weak. Today’s scholars are like this.
208: Same for today’s “skeptics”, for example the celebrity atheists. To still believe in something, to still possess the will to power, is terrifying to them. This spiritual sickness goes hand in hand with overcivilization, while it diminishes where original “barbarism” peeks through once again.
Some other sections:
Z Book IV (1884) “The Leech” presents as one of its characters the “conscientious in spirit”, the nook scholar seeking security, a fanatic about puny truths. He believes in science (“On Science”, book IV) as sublimated fear. (He’s not being referred to as a leech; rather when Zarathustra comes upon him he finds the man contemplating a leech on his arm. The leech is a metaphor for his obsession with blood-sucking petty truths.) 
TI “Problem of Socrates” 9: Socrates was the “synthetic product”, the extreme version, of Athens’ spiritual malaise. The instincts were in anarchy. Hyper-rationalism was the escape.
10: Hyper-rationalism: the only defense. One is too weak for one’s own instincts.
11: The cure was really another form of the disease. “To have to fight the instincts is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct.”
WP 68, 71, 95 (middle part), 424 (false objectivity)
So we have the scientific mindset and practice as a symptom of decadence. And this can be leading down to the doldrum.
4. At BT 5 Nietzsche asks, “What, seen in the perspective of life, is the significance of morality?” In the original BT he wrote that art is the truly meaningful activity of life and is opposed to the moral world view. The pessimism of strength is something beyond good and evil. Morality is demoted to the realm of aesthetics – not just appearance as such, but as lies. Christianity, the radical opposite of this, would moralize everything including aesthetics.
Where does science stand in this perspective (in spite of its claims to stand outside)? As we have seen, science arises out of the moral world view. It carries the same water that religion used to, but is better at concealing this so it appears, not even as appearance let alone a lie, but as self-evident and self-supporting truth, when in fact it had surreptitiously asserted the “will to truth” as moral dogma.
If scientism could achieve the domination it seeks, it would place an immobilizing clamp upon freedom of the spirit as religion once sought to do and often succeeded. This is because any moral dogma, from the most irrational theology to the most allegedly rational will to truth, is a smothering of the soul. All dogma must be critiqued, questioned, the subject of irreverence. This is the proper task for philosophy which, in its most intrepid, most creative form, is the quintessentially human activity, the daily hunting ground for the free spirit.
This is what N came to believe, as he overcame his original worship of art. He came to realize that both art, as an aspect of the world of appearance, and science, an aspect of morality and appearance, are only among the imperfect modes of spiritual expression. Science still conceals its moral basis. Art is extramoral, but still dogmatizes about appearance. Both viewpoints are incomplete at best.
Can all of this lead us somewhere better?
Cf. also WP 442-443
5. I mentioned earlier how the moral need underlying the quest for knowledge leads us inevitably to seek to create something beyond knowledge. This has been the source of religions and ideologies and has contributed to art.
In BT 6 Nietzsche describes his own misguided attempt in the 1872 text to find a new ideal and goal precisely in the wallowing decadence of 19th century romantic pessimism, as exemplified in Schopenhauer and Wagner, when these in fact represented the antithesis of the pessimism of strength, what he later came to call the Dionysian.
Nor shall we find it in science:
No! Don’t come to me with science when I ask for the natural antagonist of the ascetic ideal, when I demand: “where is the opposing will expressing the opposing ideal?” Science is not nearly self-reliant enough to be that; it first requires in every respect an ideal of value, a value-creating power, in the service of which it could believe in itself – it never creates values. Its relation to the ascetic ideal is by no means essentially antagonistic; it might even be said to represent the driving force in the latter’s inner development. It opposes and fights, on closer inspection, not the ideal itself but only its exteriors, its guise and masquerade, its temporary dogmatic hardening and stiffening, and by denying what is exoteric in this ideal, it liberates what life is in it. This pair, science and the ascetic ideal, both rest on the same foundation – I have already indicated it: on the same overestimation of truth (more exactly: on the same belief that truth is inestimable and cannot be criticized). Therefore they are necessarily allies, so that if they are to be fought they can only be fought and called in question together. A depreciation of the ascetic ideal unavoidably involves a depreciation of science: one must keep one’s eyes and ears open to this fact. [GM III:25]
Science cannot create values, but can only serve as a pre-existing value, or else serve instrumentalism and nihilism. As ascetic ideals, science and religion both are based on the fanatical belief in “truth”. To fight one you must fight all.
The section goes on to say that physiologically, science and reason are exalted where life and the will to power are in decline. That science has destroyed man’s theologically-derived sense of self-importance has not at all harmed the ascetic ideal. On the contrary, the will to truth as ascetic ideal in the form of rationalism and scientism has thrived. Channeled into nihilism, and with Kant’s delineations of the limits of knowledge, transcendentalists everywhere have been liberated again. Knowing the limits of knowledge, they now feel free to start making stuff up wherever knowledge ends.
Since Copernicus, man seems to have gotten himself onto an inclined plane – now he is slipping faster and faster away from the center into – what? Into nothingness? Into a penetrating sense of his nothingness? Very well! Hasn’t this been the straightest route to – the old ideal?
All science has the effect of “dissuading man from his former respect for himself”, his religious certainty. But does it modestly remain content with this diminution, an admission of the unknown? No – it seeks a new transcendentalism precisely here:
Who could hold it against the agnostics if, as votaries of the unknown and mysterious as such, they now worship the question mark itself as God? Presuming that everything man “knows” does not merely fail to satisfy his desires but rather contradicts them and produces a sense of horror, what a divine way out to have the right to seek the responsibility for this not in “desire” but in “knowledge”!
“There is no knowledge: consequently – there is a God”: what an elegant syllogism! What a triumph for the ascetic ideal!
We should remember this when scientists, politicians, and corporatists try to “philosophize” about the spiritual justifications for spending billions on particle colliders or space travel. To the extent that anyone believes the exalted but hazy rhetoric, it is precisely this worship of the question mark, and the billions are spent to construct a temple to it.
But haven’t we really had enough of monumental religion by now?
A more artistic personification of the fabrication-beyond-knowledge occurs in Z book IV in the character of the Magician, who sings a song of conscious deception, of the “ascetic of the spirit”, the disillusioned seeker after truth as an ideal, as a way to greatness, who finally succumbs to nihilism. (Earlier Zarathustra had predicted the coming of the ascetics of the spirit, arising out of the disillusioned poets. Here with the Magician we see a devolution of poet -> ape of the poet ideal (failed poet). Soon -> commissar. Thus we see the downside risk of art as well in our spiritual crisis.)
Two supplementary sections are WP 95 (the latter part on Kant) and 457 (truth as a weapon; martyrdom; science becomes fanatical).
And then I already discussed N’s own proto-scientism at HH 22, 24, 25 (1878) in part one of these science posts.
So in these ways N described the ineradicable urge to go beyond knowledge, the ways of abdication of intellectual integrity, of spiritual decadence.
But is there a fabrication which leads upward? What is the upside risk of art and science, as we mingle them in order to begin our quest to create new values?
6. WP 466: “It is not the victory of science that distinguishes our nineteenth century, but the victory of the scientific method over science.”
Art, in which precisely the lie is sanctified and the will to deception has a good conscience, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was instinctively sensed by Plato, the greatest enemy of art Europe has yet produced. Plato versus Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism – there the sincerest advocate of the “beyond”, the great slanderer of life; here the instinctive deifier, the golden nature. To place himself in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the most distinctive corruption of an artist that is at all possible. [GM III:25]
With all these conceptions the steady and laborious process of science, which will one day celebrate its greatest triumph with a history of the genesis of thought, will in the end decisively have done; for the outcome of this history may well be the conclusion: That which we now call the world is the outcome of a host of errors and fantasies which have gradually arisen and grown entwined with one another in the course of the overall evolution of the organic being, and are now inherited by us as the accumulated treasure of the entire past – as treasure, for the value of our humanity depends upon it. Rigorous science is capable of detaching us from this ideational world only to a limited extent – and more is certainly not to be desired – as it is incapable of making any essential inroad into the power of habits of feeling acquired in primeval times: but it can, gradually and step by step, illuminate the history of the genesis of this world as idea – and, for brief periods at any rate, lift us up out of the entire proceeding. Perhaps we shall then realize that the ding an sich [thing in itself] is worthy of Homeric laughter: that it appeared to be so much, indeed everything, and is actually empty, that is to say empty of significance. [HH 16]
While that last selection is from the proto-scientistic part 1 of HH, except for the “limited extent” and the “brief periods”, where he would later deny any such extent or period, that’s vintage Nietzsche.
7. And now at long last we come to the best part, the hope for spiritual renaissance and ascent from the great crisis of the age. We began our visit with Nietzsche (BT 1) by witnessing the confrontation of the Dionysian pessimism of strength as embodied in the ancient Greeks and Greek tragedy, with the Socratism of the instincts, hyper-rationality, science itself, the escape from pessimism, and from there to scientism, technophilia, and the cult of technology-will-save-us.
To be lifted out of the labyrinth we need a new value. If we are to use the world-historical opportunity offered by Peak Oil, our business must be to create new values. Nothing less than this is the mission of the free, creative human spirit. From here all of N’s philosophy opens up in a spectacular vista, and there are an infinite variety of paths we can take.
But to finish up for today I’ll conclude the thread of the pessimism of strength.
BT 4 presents us with the essence of the Dionysian:
The question of the Greek’s relation to pain, his degree of sensitivity, is basic: did this relation remain constant? Or did it change radically? The question is whether his ever stronger craving for beauty, for festivals, pleasures, new cults was rooted in some deficiency, melancholy, privation, pain? Supposing this was true – and Pericles (or Thucydides) suggests as much in the great funeral oration – how should we then have to explain the origin of the opposite craving, which developed earlier in time, the craving for the ugly; the good, severe will of the older Greeks to pessimism, to the tragic myth, to the image of everything underlying existence that is frightful, evil, a riddle, destructive, fatal? What, then, would be the origin of tragedy? Perhaps joy, strength, overflowing health, overgreat fullness? And what, then is the significance, physiologically speaking, of that madness out of which tragic and comic art developed – the Dionysian madness? Is madness perhaps not necessarily the symptom of degeneration, decline, and the final stage of culture? Are there perhaps – a question for psychiatrists – neuroses of health? of the youth and youthfulness of a people?…
Should the Greeks, precisely in the abundance of their youth, have had the will to the tragic and have been pessimists?
This may sound remote from our concerns of today, even irresponsible. But the age seethes with energy which has nowhere to go, and it will, one way or another, find a way to strike as lightning.
Just as Peak Oilers, deep environmentalists, and other reformers who appreciate the critical pivot of these years strive to frame the options of meeting the challenge in a rational, ordered way, or driving off a cliff, so we who concern ourselves with the spirit must ponder the same stark option.
Robinson Jeffers, my favorite poet, a tragic pessimist with the first-hand acquaintance of the 20th century nightmare which Nietzsche, happily for him, could only forecast as the weatherman he was, wrote a poem on the subject, Apology For Bad Dreams, which better explains what I’m getting at here. I’ll soon write a post discussing this poem.
Earlier I referred to BGE 208, its description of the feckless type of modern “skeptic”, who is really a skeptic simply because he is too weak and cowardly to believe in anything and fight for it. I referred to the misinterpretation, all too common, of Hamlet as such a weakling.
But a counter example is at hand. In the very next section, BGE 209, N offers up a description of Frederick the Great: a stronger, virile skepticism, a real life embodiment of the true Hamlet as he was and would have been had he lived, the pessimism of strength incarnate. (Note how the description has everything to do with Frederick’s character and nothing to do with his military achievements. It also describes Frederick as exemplary of the 18th century “German spirit and its critical and historical mistrust.” We’re talking about the intellect and scholarship. That’s how it always was with N, though he’s often slandered as having been some sort of militarist. No; as this typical example shows, Nietzsche cared about character, mind, and spirit, never temporal moving and shaking.)
Meanwhile there grew up in his son that more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism…This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart….a new concept of the German spirit crystallized gradually in spite of all romanticism in music and philosophy, and the inclination to virile skepticism became a decisive trait, now, for example, as an intrepid eye, now as the courage of hardness and analysis, as the tough will to undertake dangerous journeys of exploration and spiritualized North Pole expeditions under desolate and dangerous skies.          

September 3, 2009

Scientism (1 of 5)

Filed under: Corporatism, Nietzsche, Scientism/Technocracy — Tags: — Russ @ 7:01 am
The CERN particle collider is a $9 billion, 17 mile metal doughnut dug in the ground in Switzerland. Here subatomic particles are supposed to be accelerated to extreme speeds and smashed together to generate even more fundamental particles.
The physicists who lobbied for this project claim to be something more than extremely high-spending Nascar yahoos waiting for a crash. Their higher edification will come in the form of confirmation of abstruse mathematical equations, and from that the formulation of even more tenuous equations.
On a more practical level, this project, like any other, is promising to make all technology “better” – stronger, faster, tastier, more synergized, more silky-smooth, more job-destroying, more weaponized, whatever. It’s hard to tell what the alleged benefits are supposed to be.
At any rate, any new technology coming out of this publicly-financed venture will certainly be very profitable for some private interest. Corporatism is a constant.
But after all that money and hype, they’re having problems getting this thing fired up. It doesn’t work. Their first attempt to fire it up blew up in a hail of sparks. Also the magnets inexplicably stopped working and need to be “retrained”. They hope to maybe be able to start running it in November at diminished capacity: 3.5 trillion volts, 50% of hyped capacity. then gradually ramp up to 5 trillion over the course of 2010, and if all goes well, maybe reach the full 7 trillion sometime after that. So maybe for now they’ll only be able to work on 50% of their equations, and we can cancel the Theory of Everything parade for the time being.
(“GUT” they call it. Grand Unified Theory. Sounds reminiscent of NUT and MAD, for anyone who remembers those. Came from the same people, too.)
Why, in a time of economic crisis, where the rich world was on a crazed debt binge just cruising for a crash, while billions remained impoverished, did anyone think it was a good idea to sink billions into a glorified pinball machine? The answer lies in the nature of scientism.
Scientism is a form of instrumental reason. A scientist, who is often no kind of creative thinker but usually more of a technician, an engineer, has no underlying principle, but only a tactic. This tactic is simply the scientific process unanchored from any comprehensive frame of reference. In need of an ideology, he takes the tactic itself as the self-justifying principle, and from there seeks world domination with it and for it.
The basic “principle” of scientism and technology runs, “If it can be done it should be done, and there is no other question of ‘should?’ or ‘why?’ “. It therefore dovetails perfectly with fundamentalist economic libertarianism. Both are expressions of what T.H. Huxley called administrative nihilism.
Since there is no principle, in practice science therefore becomes the mere tool of wealth and power.
Scientism, although an enemy of the spirit, is for that very reason part of the spiritual crisis of modernity. When this question is posed there’s seldom a better guide than Nietzsche, and here too he can illuminate the path. Nietzsche began his career asking the question, what is the relationship of science to life?, and he never ceased from asking this.
In part 3 of these posts I’ll trace Nietzsche’s quest regarding the place of science. For this post, I’d like to focus on the ideas he offered in Human, All Too Human. This was the first of his so-called “aphoristic works”, or what he called his travel books (I like that term best). Human is also called the book of Nietzsche’s “positivistic” period, because here, in his first complete traversal of all his thinking, he was most inclined to reduce everything to psychological mechanism. And it’s here that he tentatively tried to offer a self-justification for science, since it seemed to him at that point that only science could truly be said to deal with “real” things. (He would later and definitively reject this position, but I’ll get to that in post 3.)
I’m here concerned with sections 22, 24, and 25 of Human. N starts by recognizing that god is dead (although he doesn’t yet use that famous formulation): “The belief has ceased that a God broadly directs the destinies of the world and..is leading mankind gloriously upward” [25]; we have felt “the cessation of the metaphysical outlook” [22].
Yet at this time he still believes in “progress” in the conventional sense of that term (this is a position he later rejects):
But men are capable of consciously resolving to evolve themselves to a new culture, whereas formerly they did so unconsciously and fortuitously: they can now create better conditions for the propagation of men and for their nutrition, education and instruction, manage the earth as a whole economically, balance and employ the powers of men in general. This new, conscious culture destroys the old, which viewed as a whole has led an unconscious animal- and plant-life; it also destroys mistrust of progress – it is possible. It would, of course, be rash and almost nonsensical to believe that progress must necessarily follow; but how could it be denied that progress is possible? [24]
Later N would sublimate this idea, hold out hope for it on intellectual and spiritual levels, but here he is displaying the thought process by which, in the aftermath of receding religion, science tries to fill the void itself as a self-justifying authority and goalsetter. The spiritually unanchored individual is the target of a new cult of scientism.
N at this time does not doubt that such an authority is necessary: “Man has to set himself ecumenical goals embracing the whole earth” [25]. We have lost religious faith:
Can science, too, awaken such faith in its conclusions? The fact is that science needs doubt and distrust for its closest allies; nonetheless, the sum of unimpeachable truths – truths, that is, which have survived all the assaults of skepticism and disintegration – can in time become so great that on the basis of them one may resolve to embark upon “everlasting” works. [22]
In fact N’s own skepticism and disintegration would eventually lead him to reject both the concept of “unimpeachable” truth as well as finding scientific truth to intrinsically provide the basis for everlasting works. I’ll trace this intellectual journey in part 3.
For now he is experimenting with believing it, asking the question of whether this can be the case. He is careful to stress that we must “doubt and distrust” even science, subject it to our “skepticism and disintegration”, especially from points of view outside science. This is precisely the distrust and skepticism the scienticians and technocrats deny and disparage.
In [25] N already feels the tension between the noble quest for “ecumenical goals” and the nihilistic reality such a quest is likely to manifest. He tries to plunge ahead anyway and, in a spectacular display of cognitive dissonance, engages in the classical totalitarian lie of accusing the opponent of doing exactly what you intend to do (even citing free trade as his alleged anti-example!):
The former morality, namely Kant’s, demanded of the individual actions which one desired of all men: that was a very naive thing; as if everyone knew without further ado what mode of action would benefit the whole of mankind, that is, what actions at all are desirable; it is a theory like that of free trade, presupposing that universal harmony must result of itself in accordance with innate laws of progress. Perhaps some future survey of the requirements of mankind will show that it is absolutely not desirable that all men should act in the same way, but rather that in the interest of ecumenical goals whole tracts of mankind ought to have special, perhaps under certain circumstances even evil tasks imposed upon them.
While Kant was sincere in his call for absolute morality, the perfect harmony of duties, and that no man ever be used as a means but only seen as an end, in practice we know that such a philosophy, wherever instrumentalized, becomes a fig leaf for class war. 
As we see, N both here and throughout his philosophy acknowledges the real-world untruth of Kantian moralism. He correctly analyzes “free trade” as an example of such an ideological Big Lie even though he cared nothing for economic issues. And yet even as he rejects the moral integrity of the real-world process toward such a goal, he still at this point wants to salvage the goal itself, which puts him right back in the position of the alleged absolutist who really seeks relative advantage.
But what can salvage the situation? Science!
If mankind is not to destroy itself through such conscious universal rule, it must first of all attain to a hitherto unprecedented knowledge of the preconditions of culture as a scientific standard for ecumenical goals. Herein lies the tremendous task facing the great spirits of the coming century.
As I said, N would later consider the placing of science and technology in its proper place, as a tool and never an end, as part of this tremendous task. But here he still prefigures the spirit of scientism and technocracy.
(To be sure, N never wanted any kind of gutter tyranny. Here he no doubt dreams of something like a technocratic version of Plato’s Republic. He was still enough of an enthusiast to believe in philosopher-kings, or in this case scientist-kings.)
And yet he already senses how that path cannot avail us. To go back to [22], we find a fitting conclusion:
In the meanwhile, the contrast between our agitated ephemeral existence and the slow-breathing repose of metaphysical ages is still too strong, because the two ages are still too close together; the individual human being himself now runs through far too many inner and outer evolutions for him to venture to establish himself securely once and for all even for so short a span as his own lifetime. A completely modern man who wants, for example, to build himself a house has at the same time the feeling he is proposing to immure himself alive in a mausoleum.   
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