A Series of Blog Posts or a Book?

So, after I asked in a recent post for ideas of what I should write about, Jack Minard sent me this:

Write about the difference between political or social organization and economic organization. I.e. do democracy and capitalism have any hope of co-existing well? Always seemed like a bad marriage to me! Doesn’t capitalism depend on inequality while democracy would do best with complete equality of opportunity? Of course there are differences in people. Some “cream” will always rise to the top… your thoughts?

Well, I started writing a post in respond to Jack’s comment a few days ago and before long I was up to 5000 words and I felt that I had barely touched the subject. A friend suggested a series of blog posts and I’m leaning in that direction although others have suggested that I should write a book. At 72, a book seems a little daunting although I surely have enough material to write one. Blog posts seem more manageable. I don’t know. I’m still making up my mind. However, Jack opened up a porthole to my memory of the countless books and articles I’ve read over the decades as well as the uncountable number of hours I’ve spent in thinking about these things and in teaching about them. Ask Carolyn how often she’s caught me in a virtual altered state as I explored in my mind all the threads of evidence and connection I’ve collected over the decades of thought and contemplation. She’d be talking to me and I’d be off somewhere in my mind wondering about a sentence in Marx or Veblen, Innis, Nietzsche, Elias, or Becker. I have been known to be ‘into myself’ for hours if not days and weeks on end, lost in thought. It’s been my adult life, but I can recall that even in my early teens I had an insatiable curiosity about things as my father discovered over and over again as I would dissect clocks, motors, engines and whatever else was at hand in an effort to learn about their workings and their essences. I still do that with words.

So, what about democracy and capitalism? To be sure, there’s a lot to be said and a lot has already been said about ‘them’. Of course, the word is not the thing as Plato and others have remarked nor is the map the territory (Korzybski), and both democracy and capitalism have to be explored as concepts as well as more or less real worldly phenomena. When I was still teaching, I pointed out to my students that dictionaries are closed systems. Try this: take a word like map. Go to its dictionary definition and then go to the definitions of each word that’s used to define it. You’ll soon discover that you end up in a rabbit hole with no exit: The map is a representation, the representation is a map, and so on. Democracy is a fine concept, then, but what is its reality? Rule by the people? What does rule mean? And who are The People? Does democracy imply that each individual participates in the exercise of power? If the leaders of a country tout it as the greatest democracy ever on the planet are we to just take their word for it? How do we decide if a country is REALLY a democracy? These are all questions I will attempt to answer in subsequent blog posts.

Capitalism is easier to define in some ways than democracy although there is some disagreement as to the effective use of the concept. I personally don’t use it, but because jack brought it up, I’ll explain. Fernand Braudel, one of my favourite social historians, wrote that Marx never used the term. Re-reading Marx’s work with the specific intention of proving Braudel wrong, I had to conclude that, no, he was correct. I haven’t found the term anywhere in Marx and if there’s anyone who would have used it, it would be Marx. But he didn’t. The reason is fairly simple. Whenever an ism is added to a word, it refers to a system, a movement, something like that. Wikipedia notes: Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Marx defined his work as the materialist conception of history and he was not impressed with other theorists who tended to see structures and systems independently of them as a process. Marx uses the notion of the capitalist historical mode of production to describe the focus of his analysis. This may seem like just semantics, but it’s not. Capitalism as a word describes a set of relationships frozen in time and place. Marx was more interested in the historical development of capitalist relations of production born in feudal relations and still with us. Marx wrote in the Introduction to Capital, Volume 1 (I paraphrase): “All I have wanted to do is the same for political economy that Darwin did for biology.” Engels repeated this same sentiment in his eulogy to Marx in 1883. That doesn’t mean that Marx was looking for a mechanism like natural selection in political economy. I’ll explore this further in another blog post. Why do I spend so much time here on what Marx had to say? Because his work, not entirely original but still seminal, is not to be denied in any discussion of the capitalist mode of production and its special place in history. Marx understood that the capitalist mode of production would inevitably go global and he was correct. Needless to say, capital is high on my list of fun things to think about along with labour.

What is the relationship historically between the capitalist mode of production and political systems like democracy? Neither depend on each other, that’s certain, not theoretically, nor in practice. This is one very important theme I will explore in the coming weeks.

So, I guess I’ve decided to go with blog posts rather than a book. I suppose blog posts can be pasted together to make a book in any case. So it probably doesn’t matter. That said, I have lots to say about capitalism and democracy and their surrogates, business and representative government. I’ll do that in the next many posts I write. I’ll use Canada as a subject in most cases but the United States is also in my crosshairs. I’ll roam around European history and literature. I’ll return to my dissertation and comment on Harold Innis’ notions on nationalism. I’ll throw in some Veblen. Marx will appear here and there as will a slew of other writers. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics, but clarification of terms is essential. The first chapter in Bertell Ollman’s book Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society is called: With words that appear like bats. It’s worth it, I think, to take a bit of a stroll through Ollman’s book, something you can do for free by clicking on the title of his book above. I say this not only as a reference to Marx and his critics, but to the use of words in general. So many words appear like bats, flitting in and out of the dusk so fast it’s hard to get a good look at them. Democracy and capitalism are those kinds of words. Batty they are, but maybe with the right camera we can at least get a good approximation of what they represent and how they relate to one another. Stay tuned.

See what you’ve done, Jack Minard!

The Wealthy Need The Poor

Just a quick note to start off the day. The title says it all. The wealthy need the poor. In fact, it doesn’t matter who ends up poor, it just matters that many people do. I mean, who can know if someone is wealthy if there are no poor people around to compare them to? No, poor people are essential to the wealthy for many reasons. First, they make a great cautionary tale, as in, “see what can happen to you, my child if you don’t put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, aspire to the things that make us rich and believe in free entreprise, because mygawd it’s our way to glory and eternity.” Of course, in the same vein, they are also a great example of how not to live your life. “Those people have made a poor choice in parents. You’ve at least started life not making that mistake!” They are also a great source of cheap labour and can’t save any money so everything they make goes right back into the hands of business. What a great setup.

Actually, it’s  really quite simple. We live in a class society no matter how much we attempt to deny it. Wealth and poverty are a consequence of that, not the cause. So we have rich and poor people as an inevitable consequence of the way our society has evolved. Wealth is a major moral goal so poverty must be a major moral failure. So we merrily blame the poor for their circumstances and for all the ills of the world. We don’t have the good sense to see who and what are really to blame.

Strangely enough, there is no such thing as ‘capitalism’, which is a word that would describe a system of wealth accumulation that can be compared to the evil isms, socialism and communism. Capitalism is an a-historical concept that fails to take history into account. Capital accumulation and the rapid concentration of wealth in finance capital will come to an end. What will come after? I have some sense of that in very broad terms but that’s the subject of another post.

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

Does big business serve us or do we serve big business?

Thorstein Veblen, the controversial American economic historian and philosopher who died in 1929, just before the Great Depression, understood the capitalist mode of production better than most.  He wrote extensively on Karl Marx’s work (in The Place of Science in Modern Civilization) and found it to be internally logical but based on the moral premise that workers deserve to receive the full value for their participation in the productive process.  According to Veblen’s interpretation of Marx, work is a social activity but the output of that activity is appropriated privately.  We know that workers do not receive the full benefit of their participation in the work process, their employers pay them only part of the value workers create.  Otherwise, surplus value and profit could not be possible.

Just as a quick aside, Marx understood that workers did not share in the value they produced except in the receipt of wages, a value pre-determined in the productive process by and large.  Workers sell their labour-power (that is, their capacity to work) to the capitalist in the labour market. A capitalist has to have all the elements of productive capacity in place before production begins and that includes labour. So, labour is part of the cost of production determined before production can begin.

It’s interesting how screwed up we are about our place in the world, particularly around our role in the productive process.  So, business evolved historically as a means to satisfy certain human needs and wants.  It’s a method by which production and distribution are organized.  Ironically, as business capital came to dominate industry more and more, we, as members of societies in our capacities as productive beings, came to serve business rather than the other way around.  Of course, we have the idea that we all live as citizens in democratic society, free to move around from employer to employer if we want.  In other words, we have the illusion of having some control of our lives, but that’s just what it is, an illusion.  The fact is that we are supposed to be served by business but we are essentially the servants of, and work at the whim of, business.  The world has been stood on its head.  Make no mistake about it though, business cannot exist unless we offer ourselves up as workers to it in the labour market. (I’ll deal with public sector work and small business in the next post.)  We are workers, citizens and consumers but it is our role as worker that is the most important in our world.

Business is becoming more and more global in scope and reach.  With some exceptions it used to be that businesses hired workers locally for local production and distribution and for local consumption.  That all changed starting in the 15th Century but the 19th Century was when this movement increased dramatically.  Workers in the Canadian forest industry (employed by British companies) produced timber for British manufacturing plants and to build tall ships. Later workers in BC produced lumber predominantly for the American housing market.  In truth, Canada has always been a source of raw materials intended for processing elsewhere as much as possible.  That’s not entirely true, but as a basic thrust and overall aim, it is accurate.

In the 1920s the British Empire was losing power over its colonies including Canada while the United States was growing stronger and more influential on a global scale.  In that period of time, the Canadian government succeeded in negotiating the Auto Pact with the US whereby cars sold in Canada must be made in Canada.  Since that time, the US has been on a mission to erode those early gains by Canadian workers, and the Auto Pact has been unravelling for at least a couple of decades now helped along, I may add, by free trade agreements.

This is all to argue that business, and us as workers, used to live primarily under the banner of citizenship.  It made sense to think of Canadian business and American corporations.  (This is also true for union, by the way)  That’s no longer true for the largest global corporations.  More than ever, capital dominates industry and production on a global scale but it still has certain national ties that make it seem as though it serves national interests, including those of ordinary citizens.  That is no longer true and is getting to be a more and more dangerous illusion.

The seemingly miraculous rise of China as a global economic power must be understood as arising from a massive shift of capital by Canadian, American and European business to productive capacity on (for example) Chinese soil in factories using cheap labour.  “Canadian” business has no loyalty at all to Canadian workers.  That’s clear.  Its business logic and primary mission is to accumulate capital.  If that means shutting down factories in Oshawa, Windsor, Hamilton and Montreal and opening them in export processing zones in China or by creating “Chinese” contractors to manufacture consumer goods, so be it.  Now, work is also becoming obviously global with the shift of manufacturing capacity to China (and other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, etc.) and the rise of the new class of ‘temporary’ workers in Canada.  Things are shifting all over the place.  It’s hard to keep track of it.

The problem with modern capitalism is that it’s completely anarchistic.  There’s nobody in charge.  Corporations are all in it for themselves and countries are becoming increasingly powerless to do any planning that does not put corporate profits first, that is, if they were ever  really interested in doing so in the first place.  Citizenship counts for very little anymore in a world where corporations like Monsanto, Nestlé’s and Exxon call the shots and politicians serve them in any and every way they can.  This includes looking hard to find every way possible to  shift wealth from public to private hands including public-private partnerships (P3s) and the systematic dismantling of government services and their replacement with private contractors doing the same work.

To use a business metaphor, the bottom line is that we are in the throes of a massive shift in the global distribution of capital and labour.  For the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look good for us as workers or as consumers.  As we lose our jobs we will not be able to afford the products produced in China by corporations based in North America, Europe and Australia, even if they are getting relatively cheaper and cheaper.  That can’t be good for businesses that rely on us buying their products made in China but they aren’t going to change the way they do business because they are caught in the treadmill of needing more and more profit and accumulated capital in order to survive.  And they’ll do anything to survive including encouraging global fascism while dismantling democratic institutions (what’s left of them)  as a means of ensuring the ongoing concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands, while pushing harder than ever using advertizing to convince us to spend, be individualistic, mistrust government, oppose taxation, and ‘get ahead’ by ‘working hard’.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

 

Gwynne Dyer (http://gwynnedyer.com/) spoke recently at North Island College as part of the Institute of War & Peace being taught over the spring term by three faculty members from the English and Humanities and Social Sciences Department.  This is the third time I’ve heard Dyer speak and on every occasion he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to go on for an hour and a half without notes or even the benefit of a power point presentation.  Astounding!  But he is a compelling speaker.  When I was still teaching sociology at the college I often used Dyer’s films in my classes, one on the experience of Marine basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina and another great one on the ‘tribe’ as an organizing social and political force.  Dyer is an intelligent reporter and critic on world affairs, especially those with military dimensions.

 

In his recent talk at the college he covered three areas of ‘current unrest’ in the world, the Middle East, the Ukraine and the South China Sea.  His analyses often seem counterintuitive as one listens to them yet strangely plausible at the same time.

 

With reference to the Middle East, Dyer argues that there has been no major war to disrupt the area for quite some time.  He goes over the power and potential of the major states in the area, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, but also of Egypt, to win a war with Israel.  He concludes that all out war between Israel and any one of those Arab states is highly unlikely.  Of course, the tension always seems to be there and there have been the odd military excursions here and there and punishing attacks by the Israelis in Gaza in ‘retaliation’ for Palestinian attacks like the wave of bus bombings in Jerusalem a few years ago.  The West Bank is slowly being overrun with Jewish settlements.  So what would be a viable solution to the ‘crisis’ if one were a Palestinian?  Well, the two state solution seems plausible with Israel taking the bulk of the territory but with the Palestinians at least holding on to some territory over which they would have sovereignty.  A better solution, still, Dyer proposes, might be a one state solution where Israel would cover the whole area from the Egypt to Lebanon and everyone would become a citizen of one country, Israel, whether Jewish or Palestinian.  Because of the demographics of the situation, and if the Palestinians had the vote which would be their right as citizens of Israel, power could realistically devolve to the Palestinians in a reasonable period of time.  Apparently, this scenario is gaining ground as a possibility among Palestinians but the impediments to such a solution are not easily discounted.  Plausible…as they would say on Mythbusters, but probably a long shot.

 

Dyer’s comments about the Ukraine are less optimistic than are his thoughts on the Middle East.  He sees a lot of outright stupidity and bravado there but he is cautiously optimistic that war will be averted as long as Western countries keep their noses out of it but that the tension could very well devolve into something more serious than a skirmish.  Dyer is much more knowledgeable about the situation than I am.  I freely admit that I know very little about the politics of that area of the world, but I still feel there is something lacking in Dyer’s analysis, a feeling I get from my general knowledge of the global political economy over the past few centuries, particularly since the first serious wave of the spread of European capital to other parts of the world in the 15th Century. (let’s not quibble about the Roman empire).  Back to that later.

 

Dyer ended his talk with a note on the South China Sea where China and Viet Nam are now in a dispute about the ownership of some islands that coincidentally are on top of substantial oil reserves.  We know from the news that Chinese nationals are being attacked by Vietnamese in Hanoi and other cities causing thousands of Chinese to return in haste to China. Dyer also talked about longstanding disputes between Japan and Korea over islands (of course).  His main point in his talk about the South China disputes is that China is headed into a deep recession.  Its in need of a diversion so that its citizens are focused on an external ‘threat’ thus inflaming an always present but sometimes dormant nationalism.  For the Chinese leaders this is a much better outcome than having China’s workers brooding on the fact that their jobs have disappeared and having them get revolting over that. There’s already enough unrest in Chinese factories with workers demanding pay increases and better working conditions.  Don’t need any more of that!   I don’t believe I’ve misinterpreted Dyer in any of this but I’m open to be corrected if need be.  That said, I left Dyer’s talk last week a little dissatisfied.

 

Dyer, being a specialist in military and political history, can be forgiven for not integrating political economy into his analysis more completely.  In reference to some situation in the Ukraine that I can’t recall at the moment, although it may have had something to do with the sad state of productive capacity and outmoded means of production and competition from other jurisdictions, he made an offhanded remark that ‘well, that’s just business.’  Well, business, especially at the scale we’re concerned with here, is never just business.  When Dyer mentions that a coming recession in China is driving foreign policy he’s getting it, sort of, but not essentially.

 

I want to step back here for a moment and consider why there has been no major military battles in the last 70 years on this favourite planet of ours.  It could be argued, I suppose, that assured mutual destruction may have something to do with it.  Launching nuclear weapons is a no-win game and everybody knows it.  That doesn’t mean that some nut job in the Pentagon or the Kremlin hasn’t thought about it.  So far more rational heads have prevailed.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

 

I believe, however, that the main reason for the fact that bombs aren’t flying between major powers in the world today is much more about the fact that countries are not really the drivers of economic activity, multinational corporations are.  I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but from my reading of European history, the driver of the formation, configuration and constitution of countries (states) from as far back as the 14th Century is capital expansion.  In the Middle Ages the acquisition of land, often violently but mainly by treaty and intermarriage, was the way wealth and power were accumulated.  After all, it was the prospect of new territory that prompted Queen Isabella of Spain to bankroll Christopher Columbus on his little jaunt into the Atlantic Ocean.  Columbus himself didn’t care a hoot about territory. He was interested in ‘stuff’ he could bring back from India or wherever he landed to sell on the European market to make himself rich.  For his class of people, the bourgeoisie, commodities, not the conquest of land were the source of wealth.  That’s still the way it is today although today we’ve come to a time when the world is becoming highly integrated in economic terms.  Companies with head offices the whereabouts of which matter very little anymore, produce (or contract other local businesses to produce) goods in export processing zones all over the world.  They then move them to ‘consumer’ markets mostly in Europe and North America, but increasingly to every corner of the planet by just-in-time processes of distribution.  In whatever country a corporation has a head office (usually just because it first saw the light of day there) it’s likely to lobby hard and get the support of the national government to champion its interests even though those interests may clash with those of the citizens of said country.  The larger the corporation the less likely the national government is to ignore it.  And if, as with the petrochemical or auto industries, a number of corporations lobby hard through their non-profit lobbying societies like the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association, then the government takes the call no matter what time of the day or night.

 

In fact, with a few exceptions, the governments of our world are all too eager to serve corporate interests to the detriment of those of its own citizens.  A recent article in The New Republic suggests that a number of ‘American’[1] corporations are already whining about how economic sanctions against Russia would be sanctions against them because they do billions of dollars of business a year in Russia and have high hopes for Russia as an emerging market for US goods (some produced, no doubt, in China). There are Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs all over Moscow. (Vinnik 2014)  Now this has a critical impact on the likelihood of open interstate warfare, especially where nuclear weapons are concerned.  It’s really not about territorial expansion anymore, anyway.  It’s about control of commodity markets, including those for cheap labour power.  Particularly strange would be for the US to decide to attack China with bombs.  It’s true that if Walmart were a country it would be China’s 8th most important trading partner.  I can’t imagine Washington attacking Walmart’s factories in China!

 

In fact, in a perverse kind of weird way, I think that the fact that corporations, in looking for the cheapest sources of labour and raw materials, spread themselves all over the globe is a deterrent to all-out war between states.  Of course the fear of war is important because that justifies feeding billions of dollars into arms producing businesses.  But skirmishes here and there use up some of that arms production as do military exercises like patrolling the South China Sea, something the American Navy has done since 1945.  Still, an American government aiming to protect ‘its’ corporations is not likely to send in the troops when that would lead to dropping corporate profits.  Nowadays, war is not always good for business and its clearer now than ever that corporate interests come first in our world.  I hate to admit it, but corporate global expansion may be a strong deterrent to interstate warfare. (Vinnik 2014)

Works Cited

Vinnik, Danny. These U.S. Corporations Are Probably Scared of Sanctions on Russia. March 4, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116853/economic-sanctions-would-hurt-american-companies-russia.

 

 

 

 

[1] Corporations are considered legal individuals in the US and in Canada but it’s a stretch to think of them as ‘national’ when capital supercedes state in the way the world is organized these days according to Thorstein Veblen and other commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect.  Although the relationships are complicated, it’s more accurate to say that capital created the modern nation-state than the other way around.

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

 

So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon.  In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society?  It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion. 

In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws.  He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life.  Now what?  How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’?  We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.

In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course.  I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life.  After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction.  Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses.  So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]

Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history.  It’s…

From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.

If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life.  We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148) 

The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled.  It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about. 

We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really.  Note what the Ugandan government has just done.  The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed.  Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians.  They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values.  Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them.  As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149) 

Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come.  Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.

You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians.  They are vulnerability categories in their world!  They need to be eliminated.  Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful.  What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error?  Now that’s a heroic thing to do.

In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.

Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others.  Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151) 

 

Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind.  For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil.  Becker doesn’t buy that.  For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)

The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.

 

The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system.  Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence.  History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.

And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders.  Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt.  He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’  This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism.  Follow orders and you will be saved.  The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order.  It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance.  In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume. 

Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism.  And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.