This makes me happy to be alive: John James Audubon’s birds of America.
I spent the past six days traveling by train around the middle of the country. On my journey, I re-read/finally finished Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. I highly recommend it for the entertaining way it unravels all of the tight-knit intrigue and intricacies of the plot. But I think the main question of the Revolution—did it create the bourgeoisie or destroy it—remains unconvincingly answered.
Some critics have written that for Marx have been right about the Revolution, it should have been fueled by shop owners, merchants, and the like—i.e. proto-capitalists—instead of by the lawyer elite who dominated the National Assembly and then later the Cult of the Supreme Being and even the Terror. But I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that since the revolutionaries publicly denounced the landed aristocracy (light treatment compared to the “national razor”) they therefore did not forge a different kind of elite against the anvil of a new kind of production. Even if the Revolution started out of sheer hunger, the end result was the destruction of the guilds and of out-and-out nepotism, especially via the church: that is, the creation of a political structure that would better bolster the economic changes that had started long before 1789.
Even if, as I think it’s well shown, the original demands of the first to take to the streets (er, fields) included more policing of markets by the State and less modernization in the workplace—i.e. the opposite of a free-trade revolution, but rather a pseudo-Luddite return to some idealized agriarianism—the fact is that the Ancien Régime got that bad in the first place because the political structure of the monarchy did not adequately allow for the legal reforms that an intensifying economic network required. The absolution of the guilds, not to mention the creation of a military-industrial machine, lend credence to Marx’s point, which is that the Revolution, while begun by farmers, would ultimately be furthered (in rivers of blood) by artisans.
This past week, my friend sent me a link to this page: a collection of podcasts about various revolutions. The latest one is the French Revolution. It’s fairly comprehensive, but of course isn’t Marxist enough. Still, though, the podcasts are good—and I’ve found them to serve as handy accompaniment to Simon Schama’s Citizen: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.
Sous les pavés, la plage! (Wrong revolution, sorry.)
I can’t tell if this Aeon article about the similarities between the Roman slave system and corporate hierarchy is written in earnest, but either way it’s so telling even when taken as satire that sections of it could be copy/pasted right into the “About” section of this blog.
The article is written from the vantage of someone lamenting the ostensibly amicable but actually officious “professional” culture. And what’s the remedy for bosses trying to be friends with their underlings? Why, an arbitrary and wildly capricious, but rigidly (read: violently) enforced caste system, just like the Romans employed in their rise to become the best civilization ever.
The Romans thought deeply about slavery. They saw the household as the cornerstone of civilised society. Similarly, the modern corporation is the bedrock of the industrial world, without which no kind of modern lifestyle, with all its material comforts, would be possible.
And just as a household needed slaves, so companies need staff.
Need I go on?
But it gets even better:
Once he bought them, the Roman master tried to rebuild his slaves’ characters to suit his own needs. He made them forget their old gods and start worshipping at the household shrine instead, ridiculing their former beliefs. He might choose to brand them with his own mark. So, too (if less brutally), the modern manager ‘rebrands’ new recruits by teaching them their company’s mission. They must carry out rituals to publicly proclaim their faith in these new goals, such as attending away days (or off-sites) and taking part in humiliating group activities such as paint-balling or karaoke.
It’s at this point that I thought surely that this piece was a joke, but then again, this kind of language is not far removed from the seminar speak I see in many a brochure, and on many a conference (and classroom) wall. Maybe its absurdity is simply highlighted by making it honest:
In Gellius’ retelling of the famous Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion, the slave Androcles put up with undeserved floggings every day. It was only after endless abuse that he finally took the tremendous risk of running away. No doubt there are few wage slaves who do not also dream of throwing off the yoke of their mundane existence and becoming ski-instructors, writers, or their own self-employed masters. Modern managers must make their staff feel that they are earning enough, or have the possibility of earning enough, that these dreams are possible, however remote they might be in reality.
Here I thought capitalism was all about solving real problems and finding innovative ways to make the material world better for everybody. Apparently all along it was a hologram: some buzzword bullshit used to keep people from questioning why they would trade a majority of their waking life for the possibility of being allowed by someone else to, say, go skiing, or to write. Who knew?!
And, to round out the highlights:
Owning slaves and employing staff are in a simple sense a million miles apart. A comparison of the two is going to provoke, but similarities do exist. It is an uncomfortable truth that both slave owners and corporations want to extract the maximum possible value from their human assets, without exhausting them or provoking rebellion or escape.
Yes, similarities do exist.
If we take for granted that the piece is not written in jest, here are some of its unstated assumptions, all or most of which one would need to believe to be true in order to even entertain the piece’s thesis, let alone take it seriously:
1. The “modern lifestyle,” with its “material comforts” is either necessary or collectively desired, i.e. we’ve all been given a choice to make the trade-off or refuse without threat of violent repercussion, and have accepted, even knowing full-well the consequences of the bargain.
1. a. Modern society has made life better for the majority of people associated with it.
2. Industrial productivity is the only worthwhile human endeavor. Corollary: industrial productivity is much, much more important than friendship.
3. Capitalism does not require a constant underclass. Or conversely, the goal of corporations is to provide jobs (er, “opportunities”) for the maximum number of people possible.
3. a. A function of corporations is to allow passage between socioeconomic classes, i.e. “up the ladder,” thus making “success” attainable to anyone willing to be a “good” worker.
4. The Roman Empire was either necessary or collectively desired, i.e. people were given a choice to join the empire or continue their mostly rural existence without threat of violent repercussion, and they all accepted, even knowing full-well the consequences of the bargain.
5.a. The Roman Empire made life better for the majority of people associated with it.
Here’s a game-theory piece in The Guardian on the strategy of terrorism: “the theatre of terror”. The premise is that terrorism only works in the modern era because States derive legitimacy from the promise of keeping all of their subjects (and indeed their adherents abroad) safe from political violence. Of course keeping everyone safe is impossible, so when a few extremists kill some citizens in a public spectacle, the house of cards is exposed for what it really is.
The author of the piece writes:
Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power when they have almost no military abilities. To achieve their aim, they present the state with an impossible challenge of its own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfill this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.
It’s probably true that terrorists hope for an overreaction to their provocations, but I don’t think that States use so much force to crush terrorist organizations simply to keep up the charade of political parenthood. Since States are really better described as almost all-powerful military/corporate juntas—terrorist organizations of their own, really—whose main goal is ultimately either resource extraction or resource destruction, they don’t have much to fear from any citizenry, even one that knows that the State’s promise of safety is bullshit.
Ask yourself if the average American thinks the political system in this country is functioning at all, let alone well, or if she thinks the government has our best interest at heart. And yet, the State is more “legitimate” than ever. Paradoxically, each continual (and inevitable) display of the State’s ineptitude only increases its stability.
I mean, BP can kill every dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico with relative impunity. And is any Wall Street banker, following the farce of the 2008 economic collapse, really worried about public opinion? The whole notion of States worrying about their image is doubly false: States don’t act as monolithic structures (what is “France,” exactly?), and they certainly don’t worry about anything, other than concentrating their own wealth and power.
In fact, for many oligarchies, terrorism is a welcome reminder of the need to pledge subservience to a technocratic, authoritative elite (as each CEO raises his hand: “pick mine! pick mine!”), much like the Republicans need the Democrats to remind people of all the scary things that await them if they don’t vote for a strong “defense” (see: the “wolf at the gate” political ads from a few years ago). And of course, the War On Terror is a wonderful business opportunity, so it’s a win-win.
Look at this paragraph from the aforementioned article:
Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to fight terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to terrorist provocations.
Notice how, even as the author exposes the sham of State sanctity, writes “if we want to fight terrorism,” and “nothing the terrorists do can defeat us.” Who’s “we”? Who’s “us”? Apparently I need to stop overacting to terrorism in misguided way, lest I only defeat myself. But the last time I checked, I don’t have any army. I don’t have a global surveillance apparatus at my command. I don’t control satellites or destroyers, or even the “democratic” internet. And therein lies the beauty of terrorism for the ruling elites: as with everything else, they use it to privatize the rewards while externalizing (and making public) the risk. I didn’t get to decide whether or not to invade Iraq, but I sure as hell get to worry about the blowback. I didn’t get to decide whether or not to allow banks to fabricate money out of thin air (let alone to gamble with it), but I sure as hell get to suffer all the very-much foreseen consequences.
Here’s a long but pretty good audio interview with Derrick Jensen asking Tom Horton about the death of Chesapeake Bay. Horton wrote about environmental issues for many years for the Baltimore Sun, a paper that is now pretty much a bad printed-out website. For some reason, though, I read it every day when I lived in Baltimore. I’ve heard it said that Luddites love their newspapers…
Even though I linked to it, I’ll admit that at first the interview is slightly boring, but then you remember that they’re nonchalantly talking about the end of life in the oceans. It picks up by the middle and end though, when Horton cites the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the ecological renaissance it provoked as the state apparatus was forced to wind back, adding “I don’t suggest empire collapse as the best solution for the Bay.” Of course Jensen, on the contrary, couldn’t disagree more.
Horton cites how effective dam removal is that restoring watersheds, though, which is more than most scientists, even the best intentioned ones, are willing to admit.
And speaking of scientists, the new governor of Maryland is doing what most newly elected officials are doing these days, which is rolling back any small—but significant—progress on the evidence-based ecological front in favor of a rejuvenated free-market populism. He’s now halting regulations that would prevent mega-agricultural runoff from spoiling said bay. This, only two weeks after the release of a report that ocean food-webs will soon collapse. The language is getting more direct:
“We are setting ourselves up in the oceans to replay the process of wildlife Armageddon that we engineered on land,” said Douglas McCauley of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, lead author of a report on the findings.
So good news all around, then.
I know that some doomer friends of mine root for collapse—and I myself am guilty of daydreaming about how much less we would care about spreadsheets and meetings and reports if our bank account suddenly disappeared or if we could no longer get sushi (gasp!)—but I don’t think it would have the effect that these friends desire. “Surely X tragedy will cause people to take notice!” they insist. For many, the XL pipeline would serve as the new line in the sand. But it’s obvious that “new line in the sand” connotes multiple lines in the sand—which defeats the purpose of each line.
If the past is any indication, no “benchmark” along the way to complete catastrophe is going to awaken the public, whatever that means—let alone incite any kind of meaningful action from the people who actually control the levers. In fact, with each announcement of this or that beloved species going extinct (there are only 3,000 or so tigers currently living), it’s more likely that we’ll see more (violent) support for the ideology that got us into this mess, at the expense of both mounting scientific data and a morality that gets less blurry by the hour.
Never mind that industrial capitalism has depleted every life-giving resource on this planet to the brink; what we need, above all, is entrepreneurship!
So in other words, buckle up because the majority of people are going deny more and more vehemently (and violently) that the problem exists precisely as the problem gets worse and more evident. Meanwhile, the elite will keep weaving dreams and conjuring spells. They probably know that without a living ocean they’ll die with the rest of us, but they also probably know that they’ll be the last to go, and in the meantime they have access to tuna stored in well-defended frozen vaults, for when tuna go extinct. Talk about externalities…