Category: Social Cooperation

The Tree of Life

I have just finished reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory (Norton, 2018).  Powers is his own distinctive cross between a sci-fi writer and a realist.  His novels (of which I have read three or four) almost always center around an issue or a problem—and that problem is usually connected to a fairly new technological or scientific presence in our lives: DNA, computers, advanced “financial instruments.”  As with many sci-fi writers, his characters and his dialogue are often stilted, lacking the kind of psychological depth or witty interchanges (“witty” in the sense of clever, off-beat, unexpected rather than funny) that tend to hold my interest as a reader.  I find most sci-fi unreadable because too “thin” in character and language, while too wrapped up in elaborate explanations (that barely interest me) of the scientific/technological “set-up.” David Mitchell’s novels have the same downside for me as Powers’: too much scene setting and explanation, although Mitchell is a better stylist than Powers by far.

So is The Overstory Powers’ best novel?  Who knows?  It actually borrows its structure (somewhat) from Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while the characters feel a tad less mechanical to me.  But I suspect that’s because the “big theme” (always the driving force of Powers’s novels) was much more compelling to me in this novel, with only Gain of the earlier ones holding my interest so successfully.

The big theme: how forests think (the title of a book that is clearly situated behind Powers’s work even though he does not acknowledge it, or any other sources.)  We are treated to a quasi-mystical panegyric to trees, while being given the recent scientific discoveries that trees communicate with one another; they do not live in accordance with the individualistic struggle for existence imagined by a certain version of Darwinian evolution, but (rather) exist within much larger eco-systems on which their survival and flourishing depend.  The novel’s overall message—hammered home repeatedly—is that humans are also part of that same eco-system—and that competition for the resources to sustain life as contrasted to cooperation to produce and maintain those resources can only lead to disaster.  Those disasters are not just ecological (climate change and depletion of things necessary to life), but also psychological.  The competitive, each against each, mentality is no way to live.

I am only fitfully susceptible to mystical calls to experience some kind of unity with nature.  I am perfectly willing to embrace rationalistic arguments that cooperation, rather than competition, is the golden road to flourishing.  And, given Powers’s deficiencies as a writer, I would not have predicted that the mysticism of his book would move me.  But it did.  That we—the human race, the prosperous West and its imitators, the American rugged individualists—are living crazy and crazy-making lives comes through loud and clear in the novel.  That the alternative is some kind of tree-hugging is less obvious to me most days—but seems a much more attractive way to go when reading this novel.

I have said Powers is a realist.  So his tree-huggers in the novel ultimately fail in their efforts to protect forests from logging.  The forces of the crazy world are too strong for the small minority who uphold the holistic vision.  But he does have an ace up his sleeve; after all, it is “life” itself that is dependent on interlocking systems of dependency. So he does seem to believe that, in the long run, the crazies will be defeated, that the forces of life will overwhelm the death-dealers.  Of course, how long that long run will be, and what the life of the planet will look like when the Anthropocene comes to an end (and human life with it?) is impossible to picture.

Life will prevail.  That is Powers’ faith—or assertion.  Is that enough?  I have also read recently an excellent book by Peter J. Woodford: The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Woodford makes the convincing argument that Nietzsche takes from Darwin the idea that “life” is a force that motivates and compels.  Human behavior is driven by “life,” by what life needs.  Humans, like other living creatures, are puppets of life, blindly driven to meet its demands.  “When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optic of life; life itself forces us to establish values; when we establish values, life itself values through us” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

 

Here is Woodford’s fullest explanation of Nietzsche’s viewpoint:

“The concept that allows for the connection between the biological world, ethics, aesthetics, and religion is the concept of a teleological drive that defines living activity.  This drive is aimed at its own satisfaction and at obtaining the external conditions of its satisfaction. . . . Tragic drama reenacts the unrestricted, unsuppressed expression of [the] inexhaustible natural eros of life for itself. . . . Nietzsche conceived life as autotelic—that is, directed at itself as the source of its own satisfaction.  It was this autotelic nature of life that allowed Nietzsche to make the key move from description of a natural drive to discussion of the sources and criteria of ethical value and, further, to the project of a ‘revaluation of value’ that characterized his final writings.  Life desires itself, and only life itself is able to satisfy this desire.  So the affirmation of life captures what constitutes the genuine fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing of a biological entity.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism transformed his recovery of tragedy into a project of recovering nature’s own basic affirmation of itself in a contemporary culture in which this affirmation appeared, to him at least, to be absent.  His project was thus inherently evaluative at the same time that it was a description of a principle that explained the nature and behavior of organic forms” (38).

Here’s my takeaway.  Both Powers and Nietzsche believe that they are describing the way that “life” operates.  Needless to say, they have very different visions of how life does its thing, with Powers seeing human competitiveness as a perverted deviation from the way life really works, while Nietzsche (at least at times) sees life as competition, as the struggle for power, all the way down.  (Cooperative schemes for Nietzsche are just subtle mechanisms to establish dominance—and submission to such schemes generates the sickness of ressentiment.)

What Wofford highlights is that this merger of the descriptive with the evaluative doesn’t really work.  How are we to prove that life is really this way when there are life forms that don’t act in the described way?  Competition and cooperation are both in play in the world.  What makes one “real life,” and the other some form of “perversion”?  Life, in other words, is a normative term, not a descriptive one.  Or, at the very least, there is no clean fact/value divide here; our biological descriptions are shot through and through with evaluation right from the start.  We could say that the most basic evaluative statement is that it is better to be alive than to be dead.  Which in Powers quickly morphs into the statement that it is better to be connected to other living beings within a system that generates a flourishing life, while in Nietzsche it becomes the statement that it is better to assume a way of living that gives fullest expression to life’s vital energies.

[An aside: the Nazis, arguably, were a death cult–and managed to get lots and lots of people to value death over life.  What started with dealing out death to the other guy fairly quickly moved into embracing one’s own death, not–it seems to me–in the mode of sacrifice but in the mode of universal destruction for its own sake.  A general auto de fe.]

In short, to say that life will always win out says nothing about how long “perversions” can persist or about what life actually looks like.  And the answer to the second question—what life looks like—will always be infected by evaluative wishes, with what the describer wants life to look like.

That conclusion leaves me with two issues.  The first is pushed hard by Wofford in his book.  “Life” (it would seem) cannot be the determiner of values; we humans (and Powers’ book makes a strong case that other living beings besides humans are in on this game) evaluate different forms of life in terms of other goods: flourishing, pleasure, equality/justice.  This is an argument against “naturalism.”  Life (or nature) is not going to dictate our values; we are going to reserve the right/ability to evaluate what life/nature throws at us.  Cancer and death are, apparently, natural, but that doesn’t mean we have to value them positively.

The second issue is my pragmatist, Promethean one.  To what extent can human activity shape what life is.  Nietzsche has always struck me as a borderline masochist.  For all his hysterical rhetoric of activity, he positions himself to accept whatever life dishes out.  Amor fati and all that.  But humans and other living creatures alter the natural environment all the time to better suit their needs and desires.  So “life” is plastic—and, hence, a moving target.  It may speak with a certain voice, but it is only one voice in an ensemble.  I have no doubt that it is a voice to which humans currently pay too little heed. But it is not a dictator, not a voice to which we owe blind submission.  That’s because 1) we evaluate what life/nature dishes out and 2) because we have powers on our side to shape the forms life takes.

Finally, all of this means that if humans are currently shaping life/nature in destructive, life-threatening ways, we cannot expect life itself to set us on a better course.  The trees may win in the long run—but we all remember what Keynes said about the long run.  In the meantime, the trees are dying and we may not be very far behind them.

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler:  Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control.  Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).

In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution.  But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality.  The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job.  The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.

Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources.  The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics.  For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.

Where does that leave us?  In two places, apparently.  One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause.  Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products.  Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality.  Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.

So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable.  Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil.  But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality.  So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.

In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors.  In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.

Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way.  It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war.  World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history.  The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing).  It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market.  The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism.  But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution.  Why?  Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation?  To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.

To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization.  How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward?  If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place?  Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice.  The means by which social cohesion is created.  Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing.  A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.

A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence.  Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection).  Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct.  But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests.  In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality.  So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality.  And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.

Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices.  The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.”  This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.”  The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy.  The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope.  But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.

 

 

Broken America

At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman.  The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets.  They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities.  They are consistently well-written and moving.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:  “America is broken.  You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this.  You just need eyes and ears and stories.  Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself.  There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all.  Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).

I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me.  And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition.  Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better.  We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things.  Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute.  There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society.  And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken.  The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land.  How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time?  How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?

 

 

 

 

 

Meaninglessness and Modernity

My goal for the month is to get through Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, which was the “it” book about ten years ago.  I read 250 pages of it at the time, then put it down and only picked it up again about a month ago.  Now I have managed to get through another 80 pages or so—which only leaves about 350 pages to go.

Anyway, Taylor has always been a liberal critic of liberalism—going all the way back to his first “big book,” the one on Hegel, published in 1975.  He was thought of as a “communitarian” in those days because his theme was the emptiness of “negative liberty” as contrasted to the notion of “situated freedom” that he derived from Hegel. (In A Secular Age, Taylor calls the liberal, autonomous self “the buffered self,” barricaded against “communion” with others or with the world, taking a detached, “objectivist” view of things, better to maintain its disengaged, “cold” autonomy.) The basic idea was that the autonomous, disconnected self, that sits at the center of any idea of negative freedom, is so contentless that its freedom to act is basically meaningless.  I was greatly influenced by Taylor in my Postmodernism and its Critics, where I took his “situated freedom” in a more materialist direction, thinking about the ways in which social structures and access to/distribution of material resources were central to any ability to act.  From there, I later moved to using the term “effective freedom,” which I got from John Dewey.  The notion is fairly simple: freedom is just another word for nothing unless you have the wherewithal to actually enact the things you dream of accomplishing.  In other words, a certain social organization that attends to material needs is required for freedom to be enjoyed.  A version, in other words, of the Marxist critique of the “formal freedoms” of a bourgeois society.

But I want now to think about Taylor’s assertion that modernity is afflicted with a certain kind of spiritual “malaise” (his word), a pervasive uneasiness (not felt by all, but by many) that their lives lack purpose or meaning.  This is the nihilism that Nietzsche saw all around him, or Durkheim’s anomie, or Baudelaire’s ennui.  Taylor insists this is new.  “What you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning.  This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (303).

Note the hedge: Taylor doesn’t commit himself fully to asserting that modernity is truly a realm of meaninglessness.  He only insists that the feeling that one lacks meaning is prevalent.  And, elsewhere, he also admits that this feeling is mostly articulated by elites.

My basic reaction is to say that I don’t see it.  Sufficient unto the day is the meaning thereof.   What strikes me as much more evident is that the daily round, the struggle to keep life going and halfway bearable, provides more than enough purpose for most people.  I am fully persuaded that meaning is generated through the daily entanglement within social practices and our relations with/to others.  One possibility, I guess, is that modernity pushes more people into loneliness, into disconnected lives that exclude them from being embedded in larger social relations.  And I don’t doubt that something like “modern individualism” means that some selves (again, we need to think about privilege and elites here) develop strategies that provide them greater autonomy vis a vis the social orders in which they are embedded.  Buffered selves are not, however, necessarily (or even, I would argue, primarily) disconnected selves.  Rather, they are selves who enjoy (I choose this word deliberately) some power within the social relations in which they are entangled.  Everything we know about human social orders tells us that power will be abused where it is possessed.  Which is why idealizing traditional communities, with their strict hierarchies, is either foolishly naïve or tantamount to an inegalitarian defense of privilege.  As with wealth, the only good way forward is for a fuller, more equitable distribution of power.  Unbuffered selves are exploited selves.

But back to nihilism.  I just don’t see it (as I have said.)  I am tempted to go so far as to say it takes leisure—and lots of it—to suffer from ennui.  Just getting by takes all the time and attention of lots of people—and they don’t seem inclined to wonder if somehow there is more, that somehow their lives are missing something.  Rather, I think it much more likely that what we have is a case of elites who disparage what keeps “ordinary people” engaged.  I am thinking here of Thoreau’s claim that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or even of Wordsworth’s complaint that “getting and spending takes all our power.”  What is troublesome about the masses is that they don’t experience anomie, that they find “getting and spending” good enough for them, thank you very much.  They aren’t searching for meaning, they are searching for a way to get ahead.  Life is hard enough to keep one going; it provides plenty of purpose in its daily rounds.

Let me be clear: I don’t think it actually functions all that differently for elites.  I think that they, too, are mostly sustained by the demands that each day brings, along with their own ambitions (for acclaim, recognition etc within their own social spheres).  I just think elites are endlessly snobby about the form that they see non-elite desires taking.  (I am somewhat channeling Bourdieu’s Distinction here, with its wonderful discussions of how elite taste scorns everything bodily and material in the name of “higher” pleasures.  We arrive here at J. S. Mill’s worries about and scorn of the pleasures of the pig.)  Elites may have a different content for their purposes, but I think the form is much the same, i.e. generated out of the social relations in which they are embedded.

What to conclude? 1. I am with Taylor in seeing “meaning” as a function of social entanglements.  Thus, if modernity truly extracts people from such entanglements, then modernity would be afflicted by a loss of meaning.  But that is a very, very different claim than saying that a secular age that only offers entanglement in the here and now—and not some kind of additional relationship to the transcendent—leaves us short of meaning or purpose.  I am willing to grant to Taylor that for some people a relationship to the divine stands as an important motivator in their lives.  But that is, for me, just like saying that for some people reading books, with their relationship to absent, often dead, authors is important to their lives.  Many don’t read books—and never feel any absence of purpose because they don’t read.  Similarly, many will do just fine without any relation to a divine.

  1. I am suspicious, as is obvious, as anyone imputing to others a state of desperation, anomie, loss of purpose etc. I don’t quite know what would stand as evidence to back up such a claim.  I suspect that, much more often, the basis for the claim is a distaste for, even incredulity about, the things in which people find purpose.  Surely, the critic says, that can’t be enough to sustain a meaningful life?  There must be more, there must be a longing for more.  Why?  Just because it wouldn’t satisfy you, that’s no evidence that it is unsatisfactory to that other guy.
  2. I hardly want to deny the existence of despair. (Let me for the moment make a false distinction between despair and depression, where depression is [as we say these days] a “clinical” condition while despair is something produced by the external circumstances in which the self finds itself.)  I suspect that despair is rarely a function of the general conditions of modernity; in other words, I don’t believe in some general malaise inflicting our (or some other) culture.  Rather, despair (at least within the structures of feeling that I see as fairly general in our culture) comes from one of three sources.  (Pardon the wild generalizations here.) 1. Suffering, either one’s own and [even worse] that of one’s loved ones that cannot be alleviated.  2. Being caught into dismal situations that one cannot alter or escape.  Such situations can be a job which one hates because constantly humiliated or exploited or made to do things that are shameful, or caught in certain social relations that, for whatever reason, one thinks must be endured even though terrible. 3. Being excluded from entanglement in the kinds of social relations that generate meaning.  The obvious case here is unemployment.  Work is a central producer of meaning in modern societies.  The weight (in terms of senses of self-worth and of engagement with others in a collective enterprise) placed on work in our society is truly frightening—and is what makes unemployment an existential as well as a financial disaster.  I do think Taylor is good in pushing us to think about the possibility of societies which would have many more sources of meaning aside from one’s work.

Three further thoughts for today.  The first is that (again, generalizing wildly) I don’t actually think religion (at least in contemporary American society) functions primarily as a source of meaning.  Or if it does, it does so by way of conferring an identity and offering a set of social relations apart from work and family.  I don’t think it has much to do at all with a relation to the transcendent, to god.  I do think it offers some consolation for suffering, some modes of coping with sickness, death, and other ills.  But it does not seem to be offering some kind of alternative path through the modern world, some other way of constructing a life.  Again, for a few it does do that.  But the Simone Weils among us are few and far between.  For the vast majority, their religion sits comfortably with their leading completely conventional modern lives.  I just don’t see where the religious in America today acknowledge or act upon some kind of “malaise,” some kind of awareness of modernity’s constitutive shortcomings.  The religious, in other words, are as casually modern as the rest of us, unmoved (by all appearances) by a sense that there must be “more.”  Religion is a source of meaning, yes, in that it affords participation in another, different, set of communal relations, but it hardly seems at odds with modernity.  Evangelicals may deplore modern permissiveness and keep their children out of public schools, but they still associate virtue with toeing the line in a capitalist economy and find purpose in constructing a life in the here and now.

The second thought concerns “bullshit jobs.”  Reading David Graeber’s book of that title is on my to-do list.  The issue it raises is the extent to which people find their jobs meaningless.  Again, I suspect this is an elitist projection.  I could never find that job meaningful, so how could someone else.  There must be millions and millions of people unhappy at work, pushing paper and doing it only out of raw economic necessity, the elite observer opines.

I spent eight years running an institute, with eight to ten employees underneath me.  At least four of them did jobs I could never stand doing for more than three weeks.  But they were conscientious and engaged workers.  Some were less competent than others, but the less competent ones were, in some ways, even more engaged because it took all of their effort and attention not to screw up.  There was some grousing, of course, about various kinds of bureaucratic requirements that created work for our staff, but, generally speaking, loyalty to our little platoon trumped issues about the meaningfulness of (or need for) the work that had to get done.  In short, like soldiers (as every study of them has shown), the meaning is generated out of the relation to one’s comrades, one’s fellow workers, without much attention paid (no less worrying about) larger meanings or purposes or the larger organization’s stated goals (or “mission” in today’s jargon.)  Thus, cynicism about the larger organization (again, a mainstay of soldier’s lives) can easily be combined with a deep, and satisfying, engagement with the daily round of tasks performed in the company of a group of comrades.

As I say, I will read Graeber, since he has done some field work among those who have bull shit jobs—and maybe he will convince me that a pervasive sense of meaninglessness exists among such workers.  For now, I don’t see an epidemic of meaninglessness all around me.

Third, and finally, I do however see an epidemic of depression (coupled with its evil twin, anxiety).  But I see it as produced by the crisis of work.  Even in 1951, Arendt (in Origins of Totalitarianism) could point to the problem of “superfluouness,” her euphemism for unemployment.  The idea was that the Depression created the opening for fascism.  People want to be needed, to be put to work, to be asked to join something, to be given something to join.  The Nazis offered the nation, while the work was war.  Our current epidemic of depression is caused by the lack of work—and the deep insecurity of those who do have jobs. [Neat that the same word, depression, stands for the economic condition that causes unemployment and the psychological condition that follows upon unemployment.] For our young people, finding a job that in some ways matches up with what they were educated to do has become a terrifying—and often unsuccessful—quest as the ranks of the solidly middle class are depleted.  For our blue collar workers, either the jobs have disappeared forever or are on the verge of disappearing.  Here is where the devil of the modern location of primary meaning in employment makes its horrors most felt.  We need to proliferate the sites of meaning production, of social entanglement in cooperative endeavors that strike people as meaningful.  We have to learn how not to work—and to not feel bad when we are not working.  And if there are bullshit jobs, ones that people find utterly meaningless, then the problem is compounded.

Perhaps (it is at least a plausible argument) the loss of a sense of transcendence, of a relation to the divine, partly causes the way meaning gets so centered in work in the modern age.  And if meaning and work are so entangled, an end to work (on the personal level as involuntary unemployment, and on a societal level with the advent of robots) is a disaster that we need to figure out how to address.  But I still want to say that engagement in the things of this world, with the people with whom we share it, provides plenty of meaning for the vast majority.  If there is a “malaise,” it is a product of the specific ill of unemployment (taking that term in its largest possible sense of exclusion from doing things with others) that is to blame, not some sickness unto death lodged in the modern soul.  And if the remedy is to learn how to find meaning in things apart from work, that doesn’t necessarily entail turning our eyes away from the things of this world.

Moten and Harney, The Undercommons

The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.

When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook.  I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to.  The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver.  They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.

M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse.  But the two big ones are politics and individuation.  Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods.  The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under.  So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed.  Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.

Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core.  Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it.  Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject.  “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence.  Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have.  We want something utterly different.”

What is that utterly different thing?  Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird.  Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.”  There is nothing wrong with us (blacks).  We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”)  M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise.  The basic message:  “We are here.  You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to).  And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way.  But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”

An odd kind of quietism.  Just leave us alone.  We don’t want to partake of your madness.  We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us.  Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children.  Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks.  Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison.  But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach.  Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man)  is a completely understandable strategy.  But it is surely a second best.  Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?

Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster.  Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker.  There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s).  Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart.  Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.

That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten.  Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge).  On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively.  And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster.  But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.

It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere.  How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else.  Why if life so hard to love?

Rom Coles

I have been traveling, so not posting.  But I have also been talking some with Rom Coles via email–as he responded to my post some time back on his book, Visionary Pragmatism.  Rom is a human of unbelievable energy, having written a number of interesting books of political theory (in fact, “visionary” is the best word to describe his books), while also carrying on a more than full life as a community organizer/political activist.  In particular, he is deeply committed to and engaged in democracy on the ground.  So here is his description of what he is currently up to in Sydney, Australia, as he works to catalyze community responses to climate change and to the economic devastations of neoliberalism.  Everything in quotes is by Rom.

“Thanks for those sharp reflections in your blogpost.   I think I agree with basically everything there – including, for sure, the need to work with/in the Democratic Party in order to pull it left in the context of winner takes all election system.  Especially when the only alternative is the Green ‘party’ which is a party in name only – or worse, a parody of a party.  I also really liked some of your other posts, including the Merlefest one.   For all its limitations, I have found Merlefest to be a pretty heterogeneous space of conviviality (yes, all white, but also these festivals tend to be the only places where conservative southerners, hippies, professionals, etc., gather and share at least some overlapping enjoyments…).  But then, I’m biased as I just love bluegrass and especially new grass and bluegrass-jazz-classical-blues fusions!  We go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival most summers and love it – though it is much less diverse.

 

The one thing I’m interested in opening further than you may want, perhaps?, is a lot more institutional change in higher ed that is supportive of engaged modes of research and pedagogy.  I ‘get’ the critique of that – perhaps most famously from Wendy Brown, and also many others – and I love reading, teaching and writing about great books as much as anyone.  But I also think that we are in the last decade (if that) for generating major change to avert complete planetary collapse, widespread neofascism emerging in quite a few spots, etc, and that there is still comparatively a lot of freedom in these spaces we inhabit – though the boxes are shrinking rapidly for sure.

 

In Sydney, I’m working more on an inter-institutional level right now, helping to catalyse an engaged research and pedagogy movement that so far has drawn scholars from 8 institutions of higher ed in the city.  We are working with Sydney Alliance, which is an umbrella organisation of 45+ organisations – ranging from a variety of faith traditions, unions, nonprofits and so forth.  We’re cooking up a pretty ambitious ‘pilot’ collaboration around climate justice in migrant communities in western Sydney.  The aim is to pull all sorts of capacities together to cultivate green energy, participatory democratic cultures that collaborate across lines not crossed so far (in this case Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Indians, Middle Easterners, white progressives, and more), perhaps (still in discussion stage) generating new community-based economic models/platforms, etc.  We’re also strategising to ‘flip’ those parliamentary seats, which are pivotal to Aussie politics – sort of like how if you flipped several states in the Southeastern US you would flip the country – pulling the plug on the ’Southern Strategy’ that has held sway for half a century now!

 

At the same time, something that is very exciting about it is that we are organizing this through the National Tertiary Education Union, so at one and the same time building an inter institutional identity as scholars and a locus of power to intervene on educational issues at the state and national level, and also really trying to shift what the union is, so that it not merely a wage-contracts negotiating unit (important as that is) but also a union that is a locus of voice and organizing power around the craft of research and teaching and how universities are structured.  This is super important in AU right now because the form neoliberalization is taking is to abolish departments – leaving faculty as mass anti-associational ‘lumpen’ and creating yet another administrative layer on top that dictates downward.  Anyhow, all this is to say we’re up to some interesting stuff, I think.”

Conviviality

Music may be the best thing in American daily life.  I guess I could try to expand that to the arts generally.  But I am not sure that any of the other arts have as wide an appeal or generate such idyllic communal scenes.

Last week I went on a Tuesday night with some friends to the BlueNote in Durham.  It was open mic night, with bands of four to six being formed from the people who sign up to play.  Mostly the blues, with the music ranging from passable to surprisingly good.  About sixty people in the audience, of all ages and races.  Lots of dancing, plenty of beer drunk, and enthusiastic cheering for the musicians.  Lots of people out having a good time—with good cheer all around.

Then I spent four days at Merlefest, the huge music festival held each year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.  No alcohol allowed, although the festival is just about totally unpoliced.  I saw two security personnel on Sunday, the last day, and realized I had not seen any security or police the first three days.  Lots of volunteers, in their bright yellow vests, and some announcement of the rules from the stages, but no one, as far as I could see, was stopped from doing anything.  We snuck in some alcohol—and I am sure we were not the only ones.  But no visible drunkenness that I could see, while everyone is almost sickeningly polite, and (once again) enthusiastic about the music and about the good time we are all having together.  Over 10,000 people there on Saturday and good cheer all around, with the unwritten rules about seats and places at the various stages universally respected.  And then there are all those 20 something musicians who are bringing back the traditional music even as they are creating new music.  Plus an astoundingly knowledgeable core audience—people who also know and love this music and its history and its old standards.

My rose-colored view does need to be qualified.  We ended up at the ER on Saturday around noon (a false alarm, luckily) and the staff there told us how they hated Merlefest because they were fated to see lots of drug overdoses and some alcohol poisonings over the weekend.  Back at the festival, I tried to see the signs of these problems–but did not.

Also, the crowd was all white, a mixture of white professionals and Trump voters. (So my wife–who wasn’t there–said, “there’s the harmony.  Easy for people to behave well among all their own kind.” Please read that statement with the proper sarcastic tone.)  The culture gap was revealed dramatically on two occasions.  Friday night the headliner was a country singer named Jimmy Johnson (or some such; I had never heard of him), who has a beard down to his navel, and a beer gut that should not adorn a thirty-something body, singing formulaic Nashville songs that sounded like every country record of the past thirty years.   After two numbers, my friends and I were done; but as we walked out, we saw that the reserved seats were about half full while the unreserved seats were completely and totally packed.  This guy was a big star, a must see, for a large audience that obviously lives in a different universe than I do.

Then on Sunday morning we were treated to a Christian rock star named Paul Thorn.  Had never heard of him either, or really known about the world of Christian rock.  And again a huge crowd, much larger than any of the crowds for the banjo meisters Bela Fleck or Allison Brown.  Exactly the kind of music I most dislike—chord thumping, drum driven, banging as opposed to note picking—was what really drew in the crowds.  And the slick, smarmy Christian preacher, with his little homilies in between his Christian rock numbers, had them in the palm of his hand.  Looked him up on google, and he just started out as a rock musician wannabe; the Christian stuff came later, which only heightens my prejudicial conviction that he’s a fraud.

One of my friends was offended by my distaste for Paul Thorn.  She thought him a sincere Christian, disliked my immediate suspicion that these Christians are inevitably exploiters of the proles.  But it is hard for me to feel charitable toward Christians these days, not when their unflagging support for Donald Trump shows them up in all their mean-spirited bigotry.

But I didn’t sit down at the typewriter to bash Christians.  I sat down to reflect (yet again) on the conviviality that characterizes American daily life.  My son lives in a DC neighborhood that is 85% African-American and was 100% black five years ago.  The street vibe is very friendly—in stark contrast to the street vibe in DC when I first lived there in the 1970s.  I don’t fully understand it; if I were black, I would be pissed off all the time.  When the police (who are usually black) have any dealings with someone on the street in the neighborhood, there are always five to ten people standing around videoing the encounter on their phones.  Gentrification is slowly moving up H Street from Union Station toward my son’s house, two miles further east.  It will probably reach his block in 3 to 5 years.  Yet everyone on the street—and in the local stores—smiles and says Hello and is invariably polite.

I have the same experience in New York City, where I grew up.  When I asked an old friend a few years ago “when did everyone in New York become so nice,” she instantly replied, “isn’t it disgusting?”  She knew exactly what I was talking about.  A certain kind of macho swagger has lost its cool for large swathes of the population.

And yet . . . We have all the sexual harassment (and worse) even as crime rates are going down.  And we have the immigrant hatred and black bashing.  Just like in 1968, we want to say that’s just the old folks; that kind of stuff is going to die out.  But the kids of 1968 are the old folks now.  Our politics is worse than ever; our society’s neglect of large swathes of the citizenry and the rhetorical justifications offered for the state’s and the corporation’s cruelty are more bald-faced than ever.  The bile pouring out of the TV and over the internet just doesn’t connect up with the conviviality of face-to-face daily life.

I don’t understand this world I now live in, where life on the streets is so much less mean than I expect, while our public discourse is so hateful that I can’t believe people think that way—or would dare to utter such thoughts in public.  I want to run and hide in the music, where a good life beckons.