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February 25, 2018

“Malthusian”

Filed under: Globalization, GMOs Cannot "Feed the World", Land Reform, Peak Oil — Tags: , — Russell Bangs @ 3:56 am

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The problem with Malthus isn’t that he was wrong but that he gave wrong and pernicious explanations for the things he described, and ever since he’s given aid and comfort to anyone who wants to blame the poor and hungry for their own predicament.
 
In modern reality there’s no such thing as “natural” hunger and famine, driven by some inertial depravity of people recklessly reproducing themselves. On the contrary, hunger and famine invariably are caused artificially, by depraved systems of agricultural production and distribution which turn food into commodities, which require money in order to access food, which dispossess and impoverish vast numbers of people by driving them off their land, rendering them unable either to grow their own food or to get the money to buy it, and which concentrates these masses in slums and shantytowns where they’re then dubbed “overpopulated”.
 
But they never were naturally overpopulated in the first place, they only artificially became so when they were driven off their land and concentrated. And they never were naturally hungry, they only artificially became so when they were rendered unable to produce their own food.
 
That’s one main artificial reason for modern hunger and famine. The other is the ecological onslaught of modern productionism which, through climate change and related environmental assaults renders much of the subsistence farmland still in the hands of the people increasingly vulnerable to drought, desertification, and flooding. Of course agribusiness locks up all the best land, driving subsistence farmers onto ever more marginal land which is less productive and more vulnerable.
 
Those are the reasons Malthus was a liar when he blamed the poor for their own hunger. He fails where it comes to why people become overpopulated and hungry. This doesn’t mean he’s ultimately wrong about what the end results will be. Industrial agriculture is unsustainable in multiple ways: Dependency on finite fossil fuels; dependency on finite aquifer water; dependency on finite mined phosphorus; dependency on increasingly denuded soil; dependency on increasingly weak crops and depleted crop gene pools; dependency on a pesticide arms race which inevitably will be won by the weeds, insect pests, and disease. Any of these or more likely a combination of some or all guarantees the collapse of industrial agriculture and subsequent mass famine. The Earth will restore the balance. But this too is an artificially chosen outcome which has nothing to do with Malthus’s explanations.
 
The point here is that if you identify the symptoms but make a completely wrong diagnosis, your prescription also will be wrong and probably make things worse. Just look at an idiot like Bono, or his hero Bill Gates who’s a combination of conscious willful predator and true-believer fanatic. That’s why I’ve always scorned Malthus.
 
 
No discussion of this subject is complete without one more point. There is one group which is grossly overpopulated and grossly gobbling up its resources, is doing so voluntarily, and is doing so out of nothing but sheer depravity. But this group isn’t from among the poor. On the contrary, this is the group of those living the extreme-footprint Western middle class lifestyle. (You know, the group which spawns the overwhelming majority of “Malthusians”.) This group, indeed, already has vastly overshot any capacity of the Earth to sustain it and will be reduced with extreme prejudice (if their corporate masters don’t liquidate them first). So if you want to engage in Malthusian moralizing, there’s the right place to look.
 
 
 
 

October 11, 2011

Corporate Tribalism Part 2: Steven Pinker and Sublimated Violence

Filed under: Corporatism, Land Reform, Relocalization — Tags: , , , — Russell Bangs @ 3:22 am

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In my first preliminary post on corporate tribalism I described how jurisprudence has tried to define corporate persons as more human than human beings. Another aspect of this anti-human inversion has been the ideological attempt to strip humanity of its naturally cooperative traits and repose these only in elite structures, while smearing humanity as being infected with what’s really the psychopathy of elites. 
 
It was Hobbes, personally traumatized by the English Civil War and wishing to justify the modern State, who gave the classical description of man’s alleged inherent depravity. Without firm, severe rule from above, we were doomed to the “state of nature” where our lives would inevitably be “nasty, brutish, and short”. Today Hobbes is the hero of numerous prominent intellectuals who crusade to represent humanity as naturally wicked, aggressive, destructive, wasteful, deceitful, manipulative, depraved. They’ve enlisted the modern sciences and social sciences, especially genetics, to support the modern neo-Hobbesianism. The direct goal is always to claim that only political elitism, only the State, can organize any kind of constructive endeavor. At least implicitly it’s always a cry of the heart for economic elitism. Only capitalism and especially corporatism can organize any kind of productive endeavor. Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and others have been prominent in this campaign. The goal is always the same, to render the class war and kleptocracy on a biological/racist basis, but in a pro-capitalist, pro-state way.
 
The latest, much-hyped installment is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Here the claim is that the level of violence has declined with the rise of the modern state and capitalism. Once again the nasty, brutish primal humanity has to be tamed and put to work by the state, capital, elites. On its face this is absurd. Throughout history elites have always been vastly more violent than peoples, who have generally served as the cannon fodder (military and economic) for the predations, extractions, and wars of these elites. No matter what level of violence one discovers at any place or time, this violence will have been predominantly caused or greatly aggravated by, as anthropologist Brian Ferguson puts it, “the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision.”
 
But if this weren’t self-evident, no problem. Real scholars like Ferguson and David Graeber have assembled the evidence of anthropology which proves that all the tales of the natural greed and violence of humanity are a fraud. On the contrary, the evidence supports the view of people as naturally prone to cooperation. Perhaps not “noble savages”, but inherently likely to prefer cooperation, nonviolent solutions, and limits on material acquisitiveness. In particular, the evidence is that the state and monetary debt have their origins only in violence and have always comprised embodied, sublimated violence. Tribal violence as a rule involved scarcity competition, but this scarcity has seldom been natural. On the contrary, almost all scarcity competition has been over artificial scarcity. Tribes didn’t find themselves at odds over game or grazable land where there wasn’t enough to go around in an absolute sense. Rather, elites sought to monopolize the resource at the expense of both foreign tribes and their own people. These rival elite claims, not to necessity but to hoarded superfluity, have been the usual engine of violence and war. Today in capitalism we have the most complete and fully rationalized ideology and practice of artificial scarcity. This is the scarcity Pinker has dedicated his life to exalting.
 
Meanwhile the “evidence” of Pinker and company, just like that alleged for primal barter, is cherry-picked and largely fabricated. Pinker’s project is to remove all violence from its socioeconomic context. He then divides history into the period of the modern State and all other times. Violence prior to* the state is then dogmatically declared to be “natural”, “anarchic” violence. But there’s no evidence for this natural violence, and plenty for the violence organized by proto-state elites.
 
[*Pinker’s chronology is also eccentric.  His most cited example seems to be this account of public cat-burning:
 

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.

 
But as many have immediately pointed out, this isn’t an example of pre-state anarchic depravity. On the contrary, 16th century France was a starting point for the modern state, which was just starting to explore its own nature with charming activities like this one.]
 
Pinker’s not here to let the evidence induce truth, but to propagate dogma:
 

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.

 
Like Hobbes himself, this is nothing more than myth. Hobbes never thought his “state of nature” had actually existed. On the contrary, he considered this the state of “civilized”, tamed man where not kept brutally in line. Hobbes’ view was similar to the phenomena Graeber documents on the real incidence of barter. Barter as a spot trade is not primeval, but occurs only following the collapse of a money economy. People indoctrinated in the use of money and market exchange will try to replicate their training with whatever’s at hand, however impractical the result. That’s what Hobbes thought would happen where already domesticated man ever had the reins relaxed. He then, as a device, read this special circumstance back into primal humanity. That’s how he derived the “state of nature”. So barter and the Hobbesian state of nature go together, conceptually and in practice. Somalia is a good example of this collapse of state/capitalism. But it has nothing at all to do with natural tribal life.
 
Pinker and his fellow scribblers simply ape their master Hobbes in this procedure. Nietzsche accused every kind of historian, sociologist, scholar of being prone to simply read the present back into the past. Graeber exposes how economists have propagated such a Big Lie. Here we have the “sociobiologist” version. (I did a few searches trying to find anyone else citing Graeber against Pinker but found none. I guess that’s a measure of how Graeber’s findings haven’t yet been widely comprehended.)
 
So we have the twin lies of nasty brutishness and natural scarcity, when in fact there’s only post-state brutishness and artificial scarcity. These are precisely what Pinker and company try to obscure. In the end a hack like Pinker is just plagiarizing Malthus.
 
His thesis also depends upon a monumental accounting fraud worthy of Wall Street. He whitewashes the radical escalation of tyranny and coercion under modern structures through the simple fraud of defining violence as only when a gun is fired, while excluding the infinitude of violence involved in people being driven at gunpoint. That’s the only way today’s academic liars can try to camouflage the overwhelming violence embodied in all state and capitalist structures.
 
But how can any measure of violence be legitimate which doesn’t account for every cent stolen at gunpoint, for example through wage slavery, whether the gun be physically immediate or just threatened for the time being? How can any measure of violence be valid without including on the daily ledger the entire sum of the violence involved in all enclosures and other propertarian thefts, including the ongoing modern land grabs? What other than violence keeps productive human beings off our rightful farmland, forces us to seek “employment”, to accept “unemployed” status, when the bountiful earth exists for us as it always did? Pinker’s job is to elide all this sublimated violence, defining it out of existence. Indeed in this sublimated neoliberal elitist form, what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism”, Pinker exalts violence as the highest form of human existence. He’s the ideologue of sublimated violence.
 
Meanwhile studies also reveal how psychopaths concentrate at the higher levels of coercive hierarchy, since hierarchy is their natural habitat. Contrary to Pinker’s lies, those truly prone to Randian greed and aggression always have a much harder time in cooperative communities. (Meanwhile, contra Pinker’s lies about the greater violence of tribal peoples, what’s your chance of being assaulted and murdered today if you try to live with the same freedom the people of these tribes knew? If you find Pinker’s argument convincing, try to live without command money and in accord with natural usufruct, and see how much violence you bring down upon you. Whatever the primal assault rate, it was vastly less than the 100% guarantee of today.)
 
If there is in fact a “selfish gene” and an innate propensity to violence, it’s to be found concentrated at the higher levels of state and corporate hierarchies. And if this biological difference actually exists, it simply defines those who are aggressively subhuman, who must be regarded and dealt with as nothing but rabid dogs.
 
But ivory tower flunkeys like Pinker try to accomplish an Orwellian inversion. They want to slander the soul of humanity. They want to smear us with the filth of their corporate masters while bestowing the mantle of the “noble” elite upon these gutter gangsters. Pinker defines statism as the measure of nobility and the embodiment of our “better angels”. But this is just a gutter devil calling itself an angel. So he adds blasphemy to injury.
 
This is a (metaphorical?) theology of corporate tribalism, the sublimated satanism of the 1%. If there’s a biological/neurological abyss, it’s between the 99 and the 1. Pinker and the rest of the sociobiologist crew perform their fraudulent inversions and slanders of the 99 on behalf of the 1.
 
This is also meant to disparage the prospects of harmonious, prosperous relocalization. How can we have peace and prosperity without the Leviathan State? But the evidence proves the contrary. As human beings we’re naturally fitted to cooperate and mutually assist. We’re ready to build, live, and work in communities where we credit one another and in that way achieve the general good. Today we also possess something new, a clear democratic philosophy and knowledge, in addition to all the new agronomic knowledge we’ve gathered.
 
Having all this going for us, we need only to purge ourselves of the criminals and parasites. On that day we’ll find sufficient resources and good will to finally live fully as human beings. Dismantling all the structures of embodied violence and getting rid of the practitioners of elitist violence, we’ll finally and truly live in the post-violent world.