Category: Social Cooperation

War and Peace (Two)

Further into my journey through War and Peace, I find Tolstoy stating directly his disbelief in people’s ability to transcend their self-interest and submerge themselves in a larger cause.  But with a twist, as you will see if you read the relevant passage:

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were ficeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the defense of the father-land, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall. The tales and descriptions of that time without exception speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians. But it was not really so. It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had. Yet in reality those personal interests of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed. Most of the people at that time paid no attention to the general progress of events but were guided only by their private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful.

Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw every-thing upside down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish like Pierre’s and Mamonov’s regiments which looted Russian villages, and the lint the young ladies prepared and that never reached the wounded, and so on. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pretense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of. In historic events the rule forbidding us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is specially applicable. Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance. If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless.

The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance. In Petersburg and in the provinces at a distance fromMoscow, ladies, and gentlemen in militia uniforms, wept for Russia and its ancient capital and talked of self-sacrifice and so on; but in the army which retired beyond Moscow there was little talk or thought of Moscow, and when they caught sight of its burned ruins no one swore to be avenged on the French, but they thought about their next pay, their next quarters, of Matreshka the vivandiere, and like matters.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Four)

Tolstoy, at least in War and Peace, is an odd mix of quietist fatalism (it is all in God’s hands, so human action is futile, blind, presumptuous, and never achieves that for which it aims) and radical critic of society and human depravity (a leftist Christian).

Here’s an example of his radical critique of social institutions:

“That evening he learned that all these prisoners (he, probably, among them) were to be tried for incendiarism. On the third day he was taken with the others to a house where a French general with a white mustache sat with two colonels and other Frenchmen with scarves on their arms. With the precision and definiteness customary in addressing prisoners, and which is supposed to preclude human frailty, Pierre like the others was questioned as to who he was, where he had been, with what object, and so on.

These questions, like questions put at trials generally, left the essence of the matter aside, shut out the possibility of that essence’s being revealed, and were designed only to form a channel through which the judges wished the answers of the accused to flow so as to lead to the desired result, namely a conviction. As soon as Pierre began to say anything that did not fit in with that aim, the channel was removed and the water could flow to waste. Pierre felt, moreover, what the accused always feel at their trial, perplexity as to why these questions were put to him. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension or a kind of civility that this device of placing a channel was employed. He knew he was in these men’s power, that only by force had they brought him there, that force alone gave them the right to demand answers to their questions, and that the sole object of that assembly was to inculpate him. And so, as they had the power and wish to inculpate him, this expedient of an inquiry and trial seemed unnecessary. It was evident that any answer would lead to conviction.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Nine.)

But Pierre is saved from execution by a moment of human contact:

“Davout [the French governor of occupied Moscow] looked up and gazed intently at him. For some seconds they looked at one another, and that look saved Pierre. Apart from conditions of war and law, that look established human relations between the two men. At that moment an immense number of things passed dimly through both their minds, and they realized that they were both children of humanity and were brothers.

At the first glance, when Davout had only raised his head from the papers where human affairs and lives were indicated by numbers, Pierre was merely a circumstance, and Davout could have shot him without burdening his con-science with an evil deed, but now he saw in him a human being. He reflected for a moment.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Ten.)

This seems plausible to me; how could you look another human being in the eyes—and then torture that person, or kill him or her?  Yet we know it happens.

Pierre then witnesses the execution of five other prisoners, not knowing until after they have been shot that he will not himself be executed.  His response is to lose all faith in life, to sink into complete despair.

“From the moment Pierre had witnessed those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them, it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which every-thing depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed. He had experienced this before, but never so strongly as now. When similar doubts had assailed him before, they had been the result of his own wrongdoing, and at the bottom of his heart he had felt that relief from his despair and from those doubts was to be found within him-self. But now he felt that the universe had crumbled before his eyes and only meaningless ruins remained, and this not by any fault of his own. He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life.” (Book Twelve, Chapter Twelve).

He is pulled out of his despair through his conversation with a peasant/soldier prisoner who tells him we are all in God’s hands.  We cannot expect to understand God’s plan, but must simply affirm it and place ourselves in the hands of the divine.  Tolstoy’s fatalism is offered as the solution to the problems of evil and of suffering.

War and Peace

I am currently reading War and Peace.  It is good under pandemic conditions to have a nearly interminable book to while away the hours.  But it must be a book that can hold you in its grip for all that time.  Tolstoy is up to the task.

For the most part, Tolstoy is a cynic about human motives.  He would deny that very many people are capable of throwing themselves selflessly into a cooperative enterprise—and scorns the idea (considered in my previous post) that war offers an instance of such full-throated cooperation.  He insists (rather like Arendt on Eichmann’s careerism) that war offers just another venue for the petty seeking for status and preeminence that characterizes 80% of human action in his novel.

The common soldiers know nothing about the so-called “causes” for which the war is being fought, while the officers are all jockeying for advancement and motivated more by the rivalries and jealousies of their relations to their fellow officers than by any larger vision.  Because society and the world of public affairs (politics, war, organized religion, the Masons; business never enters Tolstoy’s novel except in the form of the corrupt stewards who rob the aristocratic owners of estates) is so dominated by the despicable, the only happiness open to his hero Pierre is the domestic bliss that comes from marrying the right woman.

This general outlook is only tempered a bit by the remarkable meditation of Prince Andrew on the eve of the battle of Borodino (a battle that produced the most casualties of any battle during the Napoleonic wars).  Andrew finds (to his surprise) a fundamental patriotism in himself, but also articulates a clear-sighted vision of war’s barbarity.  He scorns the need to believe that there are “rules of war,” since the appeal to such rules only serves to hide the fact that war is murder.  And he despairs when he thinks that men will ask god to bless, even aid, their acts of murder.  Humans are beasts—and it is disgusting to see them dress up their bestiality as noble and honorable.

My father did join the Marines in 1942 for high-minded reasons.  And he seemed, for the most part, to retain that high-mindedness through his tough years of service in the Pacific theater.  Reading Tolstoy fills me, once again, with my basic incredulity.  Men do this?  How?  And why?  In one remarkable passage in his description of the battle at Borodino, Tolstoy depicts an infantry regiment standing in a field in reserve.  They are also being shelled by the French.  After each cannon ball falls among them, they gather up the dead and wounded, carry them off, and then close up ranks.  How is it possible for men to act this way?  To stand still under bombardment?

Here’s the long passage that gives us Prince Andrew’s musings.

‘Yes, yes,’ answered Prince Andrew absently. ‘One thing I would do if I had the power,’ he began again, ‘I would not take prisoners. Why take prisoners? It’s chivalry! The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow, they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals. And so thinks Timokhin and the whole army. They should be executed! Since they are my foes they cannot be my friends, whatever may have been said at Tilsit.”

’‘Yes, yes,’ muttered Pierre, looking with shining eyes at Prince Andrew. ‘I quite agree with you!’ The question that had perturbed Pierre on the Mozhaysk hill and all that day now seemed to him quite clear and completely solved. He now understood the whole meaning and importance of this war and of the impending battle. All he had seen that day, all the significant and stern expressions on the faces he had seen in passing, were lit up for him by a new light. He understood that latent heat (as they say in physics) of patriotism which was present in all these men he had seen, and this explained to him why they all prepared for death calmly, and as it were lightheartedly.

‘Not take prisoners,’ Prince Andrew continued: ‘That by itself would quite change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is we have played at war, that’s what’s vile! We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kind-hearted that she can’t look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It’s all rubbish! I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805; they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other people’s houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes! Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed! He who has come to this as I have through the same sufferings.’

Prince Andrew, who had thought it was all the same to him whether or not Moscow was taken as Smolensk had been, was suddenly checked in his speech by an unexpected cramp in his throat. He paced up and down a few times in silence, but his eyes glittered feverishly and his lips quivered as he began speaking.

‘If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now. Then there would not be war because PaulIvanovich had offended Michael Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this one, it would be war! And then the determination of the troops would be quite different. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians whom Napoleon is leading would not follow him into Russia, and we should not go to fight in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game. As it is now, war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous. The military calling is the most highly honored.’

‘But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.‘

‘They meet, as we shall meet tomorrow, to murder one another; they kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people (they even exaggerate the number), and they announce a victory, supposing that the more people they have killed the greater their achievement. How does God above look at them and hear them?’ exclaimed Prince Andrew in a shrill, piercing voice. ‘Ah, my friend, it has of late become hard for me to live. I see that I have begun to understand too much. And it doesn’t do for man to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil…. Ah, well, it’s not for long!’ he added. Book Ten, Chapter 25.)

 

I will only add that since World War I, the notion that soldiers are the most honorable, “the highest class,” is no longer universally accepted.  The current taboo against criticizing the common soldier stems (again only in more left-leaning circles) from a perception that they are the victims of the deplorable adventurism of our political leaders.  The soldier is not to blame for the evil he does; he is caught up in forces he cannot control or gainsay.  But the idea that the killing he does is not evil, but in fact noble, has far fewer adherents today than it did in 1815.

The Lowliest Duties

In his sonnet, “London, 1802,” William Worsdworth praises John Milton in the following terms:

“So dids’t thou travel on life’s common way,

In cheerful godliness, and yet thy heart

The lowliest duties on herself did lay.”

In the leftist/liberal circles in which I mostly travel, Ursula LeGuin’s novel The Dispossessed  is much loved.  The novel depicts a radically egalitarian society whose social arrangements are a response to sever environmental conditions.  Scarcity of the means to sustain life concentrates society’s mind wonderfully—and everyone chips in to insure survival, understanding that taking too much for oneself threatens not just the lives of specific others but the fate of the whole society.  The communitarian solidarity of this society (not without its problems of enforced conformity) are contrasted to a bloated, consumerist society that deploys its plenty to disagreeable ends.

My university has just announced, as part of its re-opening plan for the fall, that teachers and students will be responsible for cleaning each classroom after its use, in order to sanitize it for the next group that will enter.  You can imagine (I am sure) the howls of outrage that have greeted this suggestion.  Howls that, to some extent, reveal how inegalitarian most contemporary sensibilities are, even among those with a sentimental attachment to egalitarianism.

Let me be very clear.  Colleges across the US have been stampeded into announcing that they will open for the return of students in the fall. Apparently, in order to secure student commitments, they feel they need to tell everyone what they will do for a fall semester—even though, in reality, they do not know in our still fluid circumstances. Many colleges, like my own, in fact plan a fairly early August opening in order to finish up the fall semester by Thanksgiving.  Once having made that commitment, the colleges are then required to create some kind of plan for how they are actually going to do this safely.

This is insane.  First, we currently do not have a good read on what the situation will be like two months from now.  The announcement of re-openings are wildly premature.  Second, bringing students from across the nation and from around the world back on campus—and having them once again live and socialize together—is a formula for disaster even if you can make (the very limited) time they spend in class safe.  Add the notion that classes will be “hybrid,” with some students accessing them virtually and others in person, and the full impracticality of the proposed schemes becomes fully apparent.

It would, at the very least, be honest for colleges to admit they are flying blind and that any and all plans are contingent on the changing facts on the ground.  But, apparently, honesty is no longer possible in the world.  Pretense is everything.  As if anyone is fooled.

All that said: I am still interested in the outrage generated by the suggestion that the “lowliest duties” be shared.  Under what conditions, I want to ask, could we achieve communal solidarity instead of a fierce holding on to the privileges of one’s status and an equally fierce sauve qui peut attitude? Global warming is the most obvious case in point.  But this pandemic could be another such case—except that the emphasis on “social distancing” pushes in exactly the opposite direction.  It isn’t about rolling up your sleeves and joining a communal effort to avert the danger, but about running away from everybody else, stockpiling necessities, and protecting yourself from the general contagion.

At my university, the failure to get “buy in” for a communal effort stems, in part, from the heightened attention to status built into university careers (at least at “research” universities.)  It is why such faculty are allergic to unions and fervently support differential pay, with the more productive “star” faculty commanding significantly higher salaries (and often also getting various special perks, including lighter teaching loads).  The university (again, despite the announced allegiances of many of its faculty) is neither democratic nor egalitarian.

It seems to me there are only three ways to produce communal solidarity.  The first is through a democratic process by which all are consulted and all agree to take on those lowly duties.  As has often been noted, that process is time consuming (too many meetings) and often frustrating.  Reaching consensus is very, very hard.  Getting a majority vote is easier, but then you have to have some way to bring those who lost the vote along.  Furthermore, the maintenance of democratically produced solidarity proves very difficult.  Communities fall apart.

The second method is compulsion: the group effort is generated in a hierarchical structure with sanctions for those who don’t pitch in.  The go to model here is often the building of the pyramids.  With enough violence, people can be made to contribute to the communal project.  Economic necessity is somewhat nicer than slavery, but it is still compulsion that is doing much of the work in getting the factory hands to do their bit.

Finally, there is the Ruskinian dream (where the building of medieval cathedrals is contrasted to the building of the pyramids) of a collective enterprise that is hierarchical through and through, but in which the authority of the leaders is respected by the commoners because they are convinced of the overall project, of the commitment of the leaders to that project, and feel enabled, even liberated, by their own participation in the project. (The key texts are “The Nature of Gothic” and Unto this Last.)

It is easy to call Ruskin utterly deluded.  But at least let’s try to take seriously some of the issues his position highlights.  (To be concrete for a moment, all trust in or respect for that authority of the leaders on my campus has been seriously eroded over the past ten years by a series of actions by those in charge.  That’s why my campus in particular is in an especially tough spot when trying to get faculty and staff “buy-in” to the reopening plans.)

But back to Ruskin. 1.) Is there something like “authority” which gains allegiance and cooperation, even obedience, apart from threats of direct violence or economic deprivation?  Do we really want to say that the notion of this kind of authority is a complete illusion, that all cooperation and obedience stems, in the last instance, from compulsion?

2.)  Do we want to deny that participation in a communal effort, where concern for self disappears in the pleasure of contributing to the joint enterprise, is viewed (and experienced) by many as just about the greatest satisfaction available?  Self-forgetfulness can be bliss, can seem the most intense, most meaningful, most fulfilling experience of one’s life.  The urge to actually find the opportunity for such experiences can be a strong motive, aside from any kind of compulsion, for joining a team, a community, a project.  In short, immersion of the self in the communal is liberating in many (hardly all) instances.

3.) Do we want to deny that we admire the competence, integrity, virtuosity, and achievements of others—taking them as models for our aspirations for ourselves?  We apprentice ourselves to those we admire in this way, submitting to their authority precisely in order to learn how to become a person like them.  Yes, and this is where Ruskin seems most blind, this relationship opens the way to all kinds of abuses—but, still, must an egalitarian insist all such relationships are poisonous and unproductive?

4.)  Do we want to say work is always an evil, always something we would shun if possible?  Work can be a means of fulfillment—and much work requires collective effort.  How to think about the terms—and structures—within which work takes place? To what extent are hierarchies, authority, and coordinating direction required?  In addition, I would argue that we need to think about the enabling effects of constraint.  The sonnet form imposes various constraints on the poet; but those constraints are productive, even liberating.  They are not (or, at least, not in all instances) oppressive.  Constraints experienced as enabling are akin to authority accepted because it allows various desirable things to happen.

Ruskin, in other words, can seem a retrograde apologist for the established order.  But, if taken at least a bit seriously, he pushes us to think past individualism, past an assumption that any collective enterprise is a threat to freedom—and that a person is a dupe who submits himself to authorities beyond the self.  That’s the real rub, it seems to me.  Even the liberal/left, when its own positions are challenged, retreats (in too many cases) to the neo-liberal sensibility that equality is a threat to freedom because equality pushes us toward a conformity imposed from outside the self.  Getting with the program, cheerfully laying on ourselves the lowliest duties in union with others who do the same, is not experienced as a self-generated choice, but as acceding to an external charge.

We can’t (I believe) make political progress until that sensibility is revised.  We need to find a way to endorse, even embrace, cooperation–and it seems to me that cooperation is only sustainable where all are seen (even if there is some division of labor, of responsibility) as equally foregoing individual need/rewards for the sake of the common goal.  Everyone has to pitch in, and those with the most should give the most.  (The justification for progressive tax rates among other ways of taking into account unequal capacities to contribute.)

So this post returns us to the question of sensibility.  I am talking, partially at least, about esprit de corps.  The mystery (to me) of the military is how it utilizes harsh compulsion (in boot camp) to forge (in many cases) a deep commitment to the “unit,” to the communal.  Football coaches obviously strive to emulate the military’s methods.  How do you create this ethos, this acceptance of the group’s priority over the self, this willingness to take upon oneself the “lowliest duties”—where that willingness is not a loss of caste, but in fact a source of pride?

The military seems particularly apt for thinking about all this because it is, in my view, both admirable and terrifying.  Its inculcation of blind obedience, its strict hierarchies, are the antithesis of the kind of egalitarian social relations I favor.  In some ways it wants to prevent any soldier thinking for himself (in every sense of that phrase).

But—at the same time—it can encourage creative thinking about what steps will best serve the good of the whole, and it inspires a kind of egalitarianism found just about nowhere else in our society.  No wonder, then, that Fredric Jameson in his An American Utopia looks to the creation of a “universal army,” the conscription of all, as the way to create a communitarian sensibility.  Where else, he asks, are the classes so radically mixed as in the army?  And where else are all the members of a group subjected to the same treatment?

The paradox, of course, is that this egalitarianism is embedded within a highly hierarchal institution.  But that’s why Ruskin seems apposite.  We need to think the ways in which hierarchy, based in authority, can foster equality (in the commitment of all to a common project) and even liberation (in that the self finds fulfillment through the enabling provided by constraint, through its submission to the common.)

I ask myself: “have I ever been caught up in a larger project in which I ‘lost’ my self?”  I have to say the answer is No.  But surely I am not alone in devoutly wishing I could have that experience.  I often say that in retirement I want to find an organization that is doing real good in the world—and offer them my services.  I want to be part of a group that is working together and making something I value happen through that collective effort.  That heady feeling is what had made war so exhilarating for so many.  Certainly, my parents experienced (in their early twenties) World War II that way—and remained nostalgic for those years the rest of their lives.

William James famously told us we need to find a “moral equivalent of war.”  What he meant is we need to find a positive, world-enhancing (rather than world-destroying) project that would inspire the same kind of enthusiasm and dedication that war calls forth.  The failure of global warming and now the pandemic to inspire cooperation makes The Dispossessed look mistaken in its plausible (at least to me) supposition that a crisis will rally a society to a cooperative effort to solve it.  Our sad experience these days suggests the opposite: a crisis only leads to people doubling down on their efforts to save themselves, letting the devil take the hindmost.  And if the crisis is one that no one can, in fact, evade, so much the worse for humanity because the conviction that one can personally outrun the danger will triumph over any recognition that we are all in this together.  Only a human enemy bearing down on us, weapons in hand, seems to inspire that more collective response.

A pessimistic ending–and certainly Ruskin’s own fate hardly offers much hope.  But I do think the pathway to hope lies along the lines he sketches out.  Cooperation needs both some kind of respected authority and a fervent commitment to a common cause.  The fulfillment, even pleasure, comes with a sense of contributing to the achievement of that cause, irrespective of more individual rewards (rewards understood as money, honor, acclaim, or anything else that marks the self as “more equal” than the others who are also pitching in).

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.