“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” – Muriel Rukeyser
Steve Nelson, an educator from New York, succinctly explains the attitude of the current Republican Party—in all its separatist factions—which stems from a deep resentment of losing their grip on power and privilege. His post, titled White Men Resent Loss of Privileged Status, points to the trend of the elite circle getting smaller, causing those same elites to double down on protecting their resources and clout.
This contraction and consolidation of the oligarchy, as they form rank around ever-dwindling resources—either real or perceived—is of course completely predictable. While running the risk of saying “I told you so” with any amount of unintended petulance, I’ll point to Bob Jensen’s “Our Age of Anxiety” talk at Book People last April. Jensen thinks that current social justice activists and organizers cannot solely rely on the model of the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s, mostly because at that time there was the belief, held by even the lower class, in an ever-growing pie. In the ’60s, endless prosperity was taken for granted; what current politician would promise landing someone on the moon, let alone on Mars, by the end of this decade?
With such endless growth taken as the default, those in power were more than happy to share some scraps in order to quell dissent, especially when that dissent was designed to disrupt business.
However, while we’ve seen similar tactics work more recently, as in the case of major corporations leaving ALEC after public pressure, because such protest “distracted from their original business purpose,” the now ever-shrinking pie will mean that the super-elite will be more resolute, more stingy, and more desperate to cling to their holdings. Thus, more and more layers of society will be ostracized from control over resources. Groups who used to be in the in-crowd are now suddenly (from their perspective, at least) on the outside looking in.
The House Republicans, for example, are one of the newest groups to taste the bitter sting of exclusion. As in the usual scenario, they direct their anger not at the upper stratum, the super rich, but at all lower strata and any program (grassroots or governmental) that aims to give members of the lower class any kind of economic autonomy. Publicly, they conflate these strata into a single, but many-tentacled monster, consisting of minorities, immigrants, homosexuals, atheists, and women: the “other,” the “un-American.”
And hence we see, as in the case of ALEC’s legislation*, an attempt (that will ultimately be futile, if history is any indication) to pass on exclusion down the hierarchy and salvage what they perceive to be hard-gotten gains from a more prosperous, and much nostalgic, past: in other words, an attempt to do no less than freeze time itself. The resulting idealizing of the “golden age” of White privilege results in the emergence of a new cult, of which the Tea Party is just one segment. The real foot soldiers of the new cult are not even politicians generally, but rather are the average people described in the aforementioned post. As Nelson writes:
Fertilized by non-stop propaganda from organizations such as Heritage Action and the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and FreedomWorks, many Americans feel deeply resentful of our increasingly diverse and complex society. They want life back the way it used to be, or as they thought it used to be.
The trouble is, the way it used to be is a very bad place to be for the overwhelming majority of society.
* As Ari Berman of The Nation writes about the new ALEC-drafted voter ID laws in Arizona and Kansas:
Proof-of-citizenship laws and the new two-tiered voting scheme are the brainchild of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has done more than just about anyone to stir up fears about the manufactured threat of voter fraud. As the author of Arizona’s “papers please” immigration law and Mitt Romney’s nonsensical “self deportation” immigration plan, he’s fused anti-immigrant hysteria with voter-fraud paranoia. Kobach helped the American Legislative Exchange Council draft model legislation for proof of citizenship laws based on Arizona’s bill, which were adopted in three states—Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee—following the 2010 election.
A poem by Emily Dickinson:
The Sun kept setting—setting—still
No Hue of Afternoon—
Upon the Village I perceived
From House to House ’twas Noon—
The Dusk kept dropping—dropping—still
No Dew upon the Grass—
But only on my Forehead stopped—
And wandered in my Face—
My Feet kept drowsing—drowsing—still
My fingers were awake—
Yet why so little sound—Myself
Unto my Seeming—make?
How well I knew the Light before—
I could see it now—
‘Tis Dying—I am doing—but
I’m not afraid to know—
My girlfriend set and printed a copy of this while in a history of the book class a while back, and I have the framed copy sitting on the stand next to my pillow. While it’s more about a personal death, and not exactly the death of a civilization or a culture, it still evokes the sentiment of loss that so accompanies anyone who thinks for more than two seconds about the state in which we find ourselves. The first sentence of Endgame is (paraphrasing) “I am well acquainted with the landscape of loss.”
The ending couplet of the poem is one of the main reasons I felt it qualified as a “doomer” one; extrapolated to the death of the natural world, ’tis dying, we are doing, but we should not be afraid to know why and how—and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Malcolm Bull has written a book called Anti-Nietzsche, in which, as one reviewer put it, “he encourages us to read Nietzsche’s texts through a process of consciously dis-identifying with its dominant perspective and, rather than simply reproducing the relations of dominance it posits, enter into a critical engagement against the grain of the work.” Bull encourages us to read Nietzsche “like a loser”—that is, read the work and identify not with the protagonist (Zarathustra, the Dionysian, the artist, the strong, etc.) but rather with the “herd,” and then question whether the philosophy has anything to offer if you’re standing accross from the author instead of alongside him. It’s an interesting experiment, and I will try it out in my future readings.
One less-than-positive comment on Bull’s work has been the timing: Why write a critique of Nietzsche now? (To which I might answer: When is it a bad time to write a critique of anything?) In Matthew Cole’s review, he speculates on why Nietzsche’s thoughts (and biography) have persisted, while others have been forgotten, noting that while down ecomonic times force some to join the worldview of the political Left (2008 crash renews interest in Marx), they also serve as incubators for a renewed cynicism, which lends itself not to cooperation but to resignation or even nihilism: “Though despite his populist appeal, Nietzsche remains resolutely anti-egalitarian, and anti-left. Marxian dialectical thought is profoundly incompatible with the Dionysian impulse of Nietzsche.”
On that point I’m not so certain. Being something of a Marxist myself, I have no problem switching between historical materialism and the quest for personal growth or mastery, and if that growth includes a Dionysian revolt against “common sense”—against the mundane—then all the better. Marx, it must be pointed out, wasn’t an egalitarian. I have never read any text of his that espouses a system where everyone gets the same amount of anything. To my knowledge he never calls for an equal distribution of wages. His critique of capitalism wasn’t that people get paid unequal wages, even for doing the same amount and kind of work.
His critique was that capitalism forces people to sell their labor-time in the first place, because most members of society have been shut out from actually using the land they live on. The goal of Marx’s revolution was not to beg for equal pay from factory bosses; it was to overthrow the boss, take control of the factory, and run it as a collective until eventually either changing the factory so that it produces what people need or smashing the factory altogether.
As I wrote here:
“The basis of the condemnation of wage labor,” writes Robert C. Tucker, in his introduction to the Marx-Engels Reader, “is not that wages are too low, but that wage labor by its very nature dehumanizes man.” There is a reason, Marx pointed out (again and again) that it is called “labor.” He writes in the Economic and Political Manuscripts: “…[the worker] does not fulfil (sic) himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery, not of well-being, does not develop freely a physical and mental energy, but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labor” (emphasis in the original).
And as Marx himself wrote: “The positive abolition of private property, as the appropriation of human life, is thus the positive abolition of all alienation, and thus the return of man from religion, the family, the State, etc., to his human, i.e. social, life.”
Sounds perfectly Nietzschean to me.
P.S. I also wrote in the above link:
Marx’s reputation “has suffered,” writes T. B. Bottomore, in his preface to Selected Writings, “to some extent, from the combination of these activities [referring to Marx as a social scientist, political philosopher, and revolutionary] and still more from the historical vicissitudes of ‘Marxism’ as a political ideology. It has also suffered from ignorance of his work….”
From this post about reality TV that exploits human fatigue and sleep deprivation, about how we don’t rest enough in general, and about how eventually capitalism will win the war on sleep and everyone will be up 24/7 until they die:
Too little sleep leaves you groggy and prickly; none at all eventually leaves you dead. Sleep researcher Alan Rechtschaffen and colleagues’ sleep-deprivation experiments on a rat confirmed this long held suspicion. In the 1960s Rechtschaffen and his researchers positioned the animal on a turntable measuring 46 centimeters in diameter and mounted on a spindle. Under the turntable they placed a shallow tray of water. Electrodes inserted in the rat’s brain connected to a computer that monitored its brainwaves for any sign of sleepiness. Each time the computer sensed the rat had grown groggy, it caused the turntable to rotate. This forced the rat to rouse itself lest it receive a dunking. After a sleepless week, the animal’s paws erupted in ulcers. Its fur became thin and matted, no matter how assiduously it groomed itself. Though the rat gorged on kibble, its body wasted. Its temperature fluctuated, and its immune function waned. Three weeks into the experiment, Rechtschaffen’s sleep-deprived rat died.
Say what you will about subjecting humans to days of sleeplessness, as the UK’s show Shattered did (“[contestant] Clare continued to stay awake until 6.10pm, easily winning the competition and £97,000. She endured 178 hours of sleep deprivation and attributed her success to tensing her feet until they hurt and preventing herself from urinating”), at least they can consent—and win cash prizes. Rechtshaffen’s rat was just simply tortured, to prove something so obvious that anyone could assume it would happen just by thinking about it for more than a second.
I hate our culture.
“Society cares about the individual only in so far as he is profitable. The young know this. Their anxiety as they enter in upon social life matches the anguish of the old as they are excluded from it.” – Simone de Beauvoir