Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crosby, He’s Great Mate

Alfred Crosby has become one of my favourite historians. He writes clear, amusing books to answer a question: how did the West become so globally dominant?

It easy to forget how backward Europe was for so long – thus, for most of its history, Europe was a source of slaves, the scourge of Muslim slaving only really ceasing in the C18th. A mid C9th Muslim geographer (Ibn Khurradadhbeh) described Europe as a source of
eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, glue, sables and swords
and not much else.

Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 looked at the spread of the neo-Europes (countries with majority European settlement populations). In The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 he examines the medieval creation of the ‘new model’ of the universe as something regular, quantifiable and mathematical.

He starts by explaining what he calls The Venerable Model of looking at the world. One completely comfortable with a universe which could be wildly, qualitatively different at different places (such as Dante’s placing of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere): Dante averred that anyone who believed people lived in the antipodes ‘was a fool’ while St Augustine thought the notion of circumnavigating the globe absurd (p.39). All allied with an amazing (to us) indifference to mathematical accuracy. Thus, Roger Bacon accurately measured the angle of rainbows (42 degrees), a copyist halved this – and apparently no-one noticed the error for several centuries (Pp68-9).

To explain at how the scientific, abstracting, mathematicising presumption of fundamental uniformity arose – the ‘new model’ – Crosby looks at the development of conceptions of time, space, mathematics, the arts of visualisation, painting, music and bookkeeping are all examined. Including the weird idea that things in flux can be expressed mathematically. He is a master of the striking observation – such as how bookkeeping has had a pervasive effect on the way we think (p.220). Or the change from reading aloud to reading silently – St Augustine thought it necessary to explain his mentor St Ambrose’s habit of reading without speaking aloud (p.134). Or that chronic shortage of specie is probably why the medieval West developed such elaborate forms of abstract money (p.73). Or the military importance of square root tables for new officers organising foot soldiers (p6.). Permanent wage-labour, which we view as the only ‘proper’ way to be a soldier, only became a serious component of European armies in the mid to late C15th, having disappeared from Western Europe with the collapse of the Roman imperium.

Crosby brings out just how desperate was the loss of knowledge in the Dark Ages (for instance, use of the abacus/counting board completely vanishes from the literary and archaeological record for about five centuries [pp42-5 et al]) and how the provincial philistinism of the West helped Western thinkers (when they moved beyond simple recovery) to put ideas together in new ways and thus onto the very unusual in human history marriage of theory to practical application. Crosby brings out how unique in human history is its persistence in Europe. A sparkling slice of history.

Then there is Throwing Fire: Projectile technology through history, which starts with asking the question What are humans? . What really distinguishes us from other species? Two-legged throwers who start fires is his arresting answer. An eight-year old
homo sapien is a better thrower than any member of any other species on the planet (p.4).
He points out cases where gunpowder armed Europeans were greatly discomforted by rock-throwing locals (p.27).

As he writes,
We are Stone Age creatures, lately arrived in a world that is, ironically, both alien and of our making (p.2).
Thus our omnivorous diet aided our development, since meat-eating provides transferable packages of nutrition aiding teamwork (pp26-27). Throwing weapons were, early on, a key part of our technological progress as a species.

Crosby’s use of striking observation is strong – the WWII V-2 rockets killed less people than died as slave labour constructing them (pp.164-5). But the US welcomed Wernher von Braun and co in 1945 for the same reason Mehmet II hired the infidel Urban – using fire to throw projectiles (p.175). In the former case, it culminated in the Saturn V rocket, the V-2’s gargantuan descendant – taller than a 30-story building, 60’ taller than the Statue of Liberty on its pedestal, thirteen times heavier as the Statue (p.183). (And the cruise missile, the V-1’s very clever offspring). In the latter case, it culminated in the fall of Constantinople.

Another book enlightening to my fellow two-legged-throwers-who-start-fires.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bones of the Master

How many Zen monks does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to change it and one not to change it. (Bones of the Master, p.178)

I came across a discounted copy of George Crane's Bones of the Master: A Journey into Secret Mongolia while bookshop trawling with a friend.

It is the story of the 1959-60 escape of Tsung Tsai, a Chinese-Mongolian Ch’an monk from the People’s Republic’s brutal persecution of Buddhism, his friendship in the US with his neighbour George Crane and their journey back to the People’s Republic in the late 1990s to begin the process of creating a stupa for Tsung Tsai’s master Shuih Deng.
Zen Buddhism came to Japan via Korea and China, a fairly normal route for pre-European influences on Japanese culture. In China, the tradition that became Zen in Japan is known as Ch’an Buddhism (in Korea it is Seon Buddhism) and appears to be based on dhyana (meditation) method in Indian Buddhism. (One view of Indian religious history is that Hinduism developed as a transformation of the ancient Vedic religion in response to the challenge of Buddhism: in Western terms, it would be as if the Neo-platonists, perhaps under the patronage of Julian the Apostate, had successfully revamped Classical Graeco-Roman polytheism into a highly sophisticated religion which then largely supplanted Christianity.)

The collectivisation famine of the Great Leap Forward was underway as Tsung Tsai walked from Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong and the descriptions of the suffering and death he witnessed are fairly harrowing. Tsung Tsai’s monastery was completely destroyed by the Red Army after he left. More murder and destruction came from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. All part of the long, sad, brutal history of those who think they have the Keys to History being brutally intolerant of alternative ideas.

The book is yet another reminder of how important Hong Kong (and Taiwan) have been in preserving Chinese culture and heritage during the onslaught of the Maoist darkness. The story of Tsung Tsai's journey back also makes clear the spiritual hunger which various observers have noted about contemporary China.

The narrator, George Crane, is a very live figure in much of the book, as he introduces us to Tsung Tsai and accompanies him to China and back. His sceptical-yet-impressed affection for his neighbour is part of the book's charm. But Tsung Tsai is the real centre of the book. It is a delight to make his acquaintance and see a Ch’an master living life. Wisdom as simplicity, attention and compassion is not mere belief, but the entire practice of his life. As I struggled my way through the prolix self-importance of major C20th continental European thinkers, meeting Tsung Tsai makes their flaws seem even more striking. I am reminded of the story of the Zen master who, frustrated with trying to talk to a European philosopher, began to fill the philosopher’s tea cup until it overflowed. When the philosopher protested, the Zen master responded that you cannot put into what is already occupied.

But Tsung Tsai is no plaster saint, he is a very real person. I recommend his acquaintance.

Still not online at home

Hence the lack of posting. It should all be back up and running on Friday though!

Monday, April 20, 2009

While Europe Slept

Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within is a cri d’coeur from an American gay writer who found the sanctuary of tolerance he had thought he had found in the Netherlands and Norway to be not so.

Having fled, amongst other things, the American Religious Right, he found that Europe had a far worse—more violent, more dangerous, more ruthless—Religious Right. One, moreover, whose claims were much less publicly contested than the Religious Right in the US’s were. Worse, whose claims were ignored or excused by Europe’s cosy (indeed claustrophobic) elite. What made them worse and far less contested? This Religious Right is Muslim.

The book’s subtitle is misleading. It is about Europe, not the West—one of the themes through the book is that the US is handling Muslim migration much better than Europe is—and about slow social suicide more than it is about Muslim aggression.
The book has three single-chapter parts. The first, Before 9/11: Europe in Denial, examines the problems building up in Europe’s Muslim communities. Such as the systematic resistance to integration—including such techniques as marrying locally born or raised daughters to Muslim men from the conservative rural villages the family came from. Also, the burgeoning sense of entitlement—Muslims make up 5% of the Danish population but consume 40% of welfare outlays (p.30). With spreading patterns of crime—rape, gay-bashings, honour killing, muggings, assaults. 70% of those in French prisoners are Muslim (p.52). Too many imans act as community gate-keepers, defining and extolling separateness to maintain their own power. With subordination of women, hatred of homosexuals and rejection of secular democracy setting the psychic fences they seek to build and police around Muslim communities.

Given Muslims now typically make up between 5% and 12% of European populations, these are serious issues. But the very narrow European media, political and intellectual elites are generally uninterested in openly examining such problems. Indeed, they are typically actively hostile to any consideration that reflects either negatively on Muslims or positively on their own societies. The only acceptable diagnosis is (European) racism and (Muslim) poverty, to be solved by tender concern for Muslim sensibilities and welfare spending.

Such racism does exist. Bawer notes evidence that it is hard for people with the “wrong” names to get interviewed for jobs. The contrast between Europe’s parochial welfarism and the US’s more open “get a job” approach is such that the more educated and liberal Muslims tend go to the US, the more conservative and less educated ones to Europe (p.72).

But the wilful blindness of European elites to real problems is a far bigger problem than European racism. (Unless, of course, one takes the view that the “tender concern” is actually a form of condescending racism itself.) Matt Ridley’s definition of political correctness as inferring is from ought (it ought to be the case that Muslims are trying to integrate happily, so it is the case, and anyone who says otherwise is a bad person: indeed, is probably racist) is well on display. Bawer is clearly fairly appalled at the narrow range of views in most European media; much narrower than the range of views he was used to back in the US.

Of course, one could argue that such elites are engaged in their own form of gatekeeping—defining their own people and society as inherently problematic, hence requiring the constant ministrations of their “betters”. So we have a destructive complementarity of imans enforcing conformity within Muslim communities and European elites—showing particularly virulent forms of the standard progressivist intolerances—enforcing conformity in public discussion: with Muslim (and other) women, gays and Jews the main victims.

There can be no better indication of how much progressivist moral posturing is simply status-seeking preening against their own societies than the mealy-mouthed ignoring or excusing by so many progressivists (with some honourable exceptions) of what are clearly patterns of patriarchal violence. But to denounce such would take genuine moral courage, rather than the pretence of it. (Hence, of course, the animus against those who do speak up.)

The second part, 9/11 and After: Blaming Americans and Jews examines the pervasive and (there is no other word for it) pathological nature of anti-Americanism in Europe. Hatred always tells you far more about the hater than the hated. One doesn’t look to the writings of anti-Semites to find out about Jews, or the writings of the Catholic Church and Catholic apologists to find about gays and lesbians. So the writings of the anti-Americans are not sources to be seriously informed about the US. Yet those are the writings that Europeans are overwhelmingly fed or consume.

Europeans, particularly in public, clearly define themselves against the US. But not the US as it is; the US as they imagine it to be. All the while being avid consumers of American popular culture.

Throughout the book, Bawer weaves his own experiences into the narrative. He clearly finds the smug (and often deeply ignorant) but pervasive anti-Americanism extremely frustrating.

Bawer also examines the growing anti-Semitism in European countries and the refusal of European elites to take it with due seriousness. Harassment of Jewish students by Muslim students has become endemic (particularly in France), with increasing desecration of Jewish property and violence. Bawer observes that while Americans speak of “Jews” or, more often, “Jewish people,” Europeans speak of “the Jews” (p.140). He is surely correct in suggesting that bad faith over the Holocaust is a major factor. An assault by three men from France on Jewish students, one of whom was wearing an Israeli flag around their neck, at the Auschwitz memorial (Pp 150-1) seems emblematic.

The third part, Europe’s Weimar Moment: the Liberal Resistance and its Prospects, examines the passivity (and worse) of European elites while also looking for signs of an increased willingness to defend the freedom of Europeans. There are some, but Bawer is not very hopeful. Nor is he in the Afterword to the paperback edition on the Danish cartoons controversy. He finds the recurring passivity of European bystanders to crimes of violence a worrying symbol.

While Europe Slept is passionately written bleak reading. It is easy to imagine grim scenarios of either continuing slow collapse or vicious backlash. Less easy to see a more civilised reversal. Too many people’s sense of identity is wrapped up in not seeing and not dealing with.

The devastating effort of the two World Wars is likely the ultimate cause of this cultural collapse. Not only did the second leave the psychic burden of the Holocaust, but they were experiences of futile devastation that left Europe inward-looking and subordinate to the “flanking victors” of the US and the Soviet Union: with Britain as an intermediate case of exhausting victory. History became A Problem; a story of evil, loss and devastation. Rejection of the past seemed to be the only decent option.

Which, of course, leaves nothing to anchor a sense of pride in one’s own society in. And those who do not believe in what they are, are very vulnerable to those who need to believe passionately in what they are. In a conflict between those who reject themselves and those who believe in themselves, belief will win whatever the numbers look like because belief will keeping coming back and lack of belief will keep retreating.

Europeans will have to find a belief in themselves, their societies and their values if they are going to deal with the passionate hostility of radical Islam to secular liberal society.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A little local difficulty

My housemate has got dumped by his (and therefore my) internet provider for being two months behind paying the bill. So, no internet from home until the provider gets replaced. This may retard posting for a bit.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Owning a country

I have read a lot over the years about the internal operation of totalitarian societies. So I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to read yet another book in that genre. But North Korea was much in the news, so I purchased veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. My fears were groundless, I found it deeply informative.

First, Martin is an acute and comprehensive observer. He seems to have read everything and talked to everyone that has emerged from the world’s most closed society. The mass of detail is absorbed fairly painlessly because his writing style is direct and engaging.

Second, North Korea is such an intense example of a totalitarian society that it shows the pathologies thereof in particularly luxuriant forms.

Finally, my own understanding of social processes has expanded, so I read the book with a more analytically informed eye.

There is a theory in political economy—advanced by the late Mancur Olson—that the longer the ruler’s time horizon, the more the interests of ruler and subjects converge. Since the longest such time horizon is hereditary rule, this helps explain the strong selective tendency for hereditary rule in human history.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—or the Kim Family Regime as US military personnel are wont to call it—provides a strong counter-example to the theory. It is precisely because the Kim family is so tied up in the current system, that it has proved so resistant to change.

And that system is a startling example of what Roger Kimball called experiments against reality. The entire society has been constructed on the principle that if everyone just has the right ideas, the right motives, anything can be achieved.

Defector, and former chief ideologue, Hwang Jang-yop made a particularly revealing comment about North Korea’s socialism in one family dynastic Stalinism:
In a situation where all means of production actually belong to the Great Leader, the economy itself naturally serves the interest of the Great Leader before all else. The national economy is nothing more than the household economy of the Great Leader. North Korea’s economy exists first and foremost to serve the Great Leader (P.193).
The point Mancur Olson made so fruitfully in analysing the Soviet Union under Stalin. Kim Il-sung was essentially Stalin, but one still deeply embedded in an intensely patrilineal culture rather than someone much less family oriented. Both had inner circles, they just used somewhat different selection processes to create loyalty. Kim Il-sung even personally bred loyalists, using his illegitimate children as loyal “eyes and ears” within the control (that is party-and-state) apparatus.

As Yoram Barzel explains, property-in-practice is about use, not legal form. Analyse Stalinism (and Leninism more broadly) in terms of its formal legal structure and its history makes no sense. Analyse it as a system of property based on who has use-through-control and it makes perfect sense. As in the person who controls the power being the effective owner of the country.

Socialism is bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is hierarchical: as is the politics of social transformation, of a revolutionary elite profoundly changing society. So, revolutionary socialism leads naturally to intensely hierarchical societies. And moreover, societies based significantly on birth at all levels: one’s birth in the right (or wrong) classes. Belonging to a reliable (or unreliable) family. In many ways, what looks “revolutionary” ends up displaying more intensively already existing cultural patterns shorn of any of the checks and balances of traditional society. Or even more thoroughly regressive, as in the revival of state slavery in mines and other labour camps.
George Orwell’s 1984 is no mere literary fantasy. If you were North Korean, Big Brother would watch you. Pyongyang’s internal spies and thought police were everywhere. (p.265)
Since the North Korean economic system is one where rewards have been disconnected with output, from 1990, starvation became an issue (p.265). Martin spends considerable effort outlining North Korea’s endemic economic difficulties and Kim II (Kim Jong-il) attempts—some bizarre, some halfway sensible—to deal with them. Martin spends even more effort trying to untangle the mind and character of Kim II. (And whether there is likely to be a Kim III: he quotes admiring remarks about the Thai system from Kim II and examines the prospects of his children, particularly his eldest son Kim Jong-nam.)

A conspicuous part of the North Korean system is its rampant militarism, which pervades all aspects of the society. It is more an armed camp than a country. Martin wavers back and forth about the risks that flow from said rampant militarism. He clearly think that, for many years, if the US had withdrawn its troops, war would have become very likely. Now, he seems to judge economic weakness has advanced so far—and, conversely, Kim II’s confidence in his power and ability to steer a successful course have increased sufficiently—that the militarism is mainly about keeping power internally and external strategic “cards in play”. A firm patience is his counsel for dealing with this armed camp of socialism-in-one-family.

Analysts of religion count North Korea’s official ideology of Juche as a religion, because North Korea has an eternal President. Which makes Kim Jong-il its hereditary Priest-King. It is difficult for a theocratic ruler to change fundamentally the ideas on which the legitimacy of his rule is based. Possibly the goals of development and national unity and grandeur can provide cover for vast changes (as they have in China) but there is plenty of scope for disaster on the way through. A pathological system and regime may yet disastrously inflict its pathologies on the wider world.

ADDENDA: Have added an appropriate link on labour camps.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The utopian cruelty of the opposition to homosexuality

Several things strike me reading pieces such as Rod Dreher’s arguments against legal equality for same-sex couples.

(1) Basing ethics on a conception of The Good is inherently tyrannical. Both in the sense of privileging certain people to decide what is The Good and in restricting the lives of those who do not conform that privileged notion of The Good. Hence the importance of "the pursuit of happiness" in the American Declaration of Independence as a principle for a free society, one in which people can pursue their various visions of the good.

I entirely agree with John Rawls that ethics should be concerned with how we get along, not with the pursuit of a singular The Good. We need criteria of judgement because we are purposive beings, but the question “how should we live?” is a different question to “how do we get along?”. (So I also agree with Roger Scruton that answering the second question does not answer the first. From a rather different perspective, Terry Eagleton makes a similar point.)

(2) Such conservatives are apparently committed to an unending war against human sexual diversity. This is a form of utopianism: dealing with human nature not as it is as it is (diverse in erotic orientation) but has it is conceived it ought to be (only one proper sexual orientation). With a history that has all the brutality that utopian wars against human nature involve. (The inherent brutality of utopianism I discuss a bit further here.)

That such anathematisatioin is utopian is obscured by it being “traditional”, though not by the brutality by which the tradition was established and maintained. Its utopianism is also obscured by it being imposed on a comparatively small and vulnerable minority. For there can be few more isolated, more vulnerable or more lonely people anywhere than a same-sex oriented boy or girl reaching puberty in a deeply religious family and community that anathematises same-sex activity and so rejects the legitimacy of their actual nature.

For the largely oblivious majority, such repression could (and can) be passed off as just "normality" or "decency". That some lived in a world of fear, hiding, informers and police brutality, where even to publish a novel which presented homosexuality positively was "obscene"—a quasi-police state in the middle of free societies, whose patterns are familiar to anyone aware of those in the various milder "making the glorious future" totalitarian societies—was a non-happening. It is precisely because modern states have retreated from that required brutality and repression that the tradition of anathematisation and exclusion is collapsing.

That both the opposition to homosexuality and revolutionary socialism are utopian wars against human nature means that there are various affinities between the two: notably the downgrading of consent due to the elevation of form. Just as revolutionary socialism holds workers consenting to work for a firm does not matter because capitalist enterprise is a "false form" of economic action, so the opposition to homosexuality says two men or two women consenting to have sex does not matter because same-sex activity is a "false form" of sexual activity.

There has also certain been a certain "airbrushing" of history, so quite false statements get passed off as "obvious" truths. An example is:
“until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history”
from columnist Charles Krauthammer, which is either smug ignorance of much anthropological data or else arch narrowing of terms. Even supporters of same-sex marriage such as Steven Schmidt can make statements such as:
“The institution of marriage is the foundation of society and alterations to its definitions shouldn't be lightly undertaken. It has always been defined as the legal union of a man and a woman, and it's understandable that many Americans are apprehensive about making a definitional change to so profoundly an important institution.”
while standing in a land whose preceding cultures included ones that included same-sex marriages.

(3) Homosexuality is discussed as an "optional extra" rather than manifestation of how (some) people are. But that is profoundly disingenuous. Disapproval of homosexuality is not mere disapproval of certain sex acts (even those—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, etc—which have their heterosexual equivalents), it is disapproval of love expressed by such sex. Of building lives together bound by erotic love. It is a disapproval of people’s lives in a quite fundamental sense.

To justify such on the grounds of a commitment to a conception of “human flourishing”, as Rod Dreher, Edward Feser, James Kalb and others do, is a conception that clearly excludes a whole set of people from the definition of humans-whose-flourishing-counts. (Any notion that such exclusion is in their “real” interests is just a monstrously disingenuous rationalization.) Indeed, it is a conception of “human flourishing” which entails creating human misery for those who do not conform to its notion of the proper form of the human. See previous comments about the tyrannical nature of ethics based on a conception of The Good.

After all, why be bothered at all that some men love other men, or some women love other women as if such people have to ask permission to live, love and build lives together? It bespeaks of a desperate desire to enforce a particular conception of the human.

The traditional Christian position has been to be as cruel to the same-sex attracted and oriented as can be got away with. If burning them alive can be got away with, that was done. If throwing them to dogs to be eaten alive can be got away with, that was done. If it is to be gaoled or flogged, that was done. Any way the message can be sent that they are contemptible and disgusting, that was done. As philosopher Richard Mohr observed:
unenforced sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum.
If the message can be sent that daring to think themselves the equal of “real people” with “real relationships” is unacceptable can be sent, that is done.

The wonder is, people can believe that the God who sent His only Son to die on the cross for their salvation nevertheless also wants them to be as cruel as they can get away with to a particular vulnerable minority. The trick is to pass it off as not being cruelty, but as defence of “decency”. An old trick, but rarely done with such fervour as against the queers.

(4) The experience of being homosexual (and so the implications of "our disapproval counts because we have the numbers" for homosexuals) has no weight. It is just not a set of experiences or aspirations that count at all. So no cruelty to them in the name of "defending decency" counts as cruelty, which is how the believers reconcile their commitment to the Gospel of Love with inflicting as much cruelty as they can get away with without presenting it (above all to themselves) as cruelty.

So, to sum up (the opposition to homosexuality), homosexuals should not exist, they should not act upon their existence as people erotically oriented towards their own sex, the law should not positively recognise their existence, and should not protect the lives they build together. So, the fight is between the growing view that homosexuals are just folk—in the words of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
—versus the view that they are a twisted and perverted lesser form of the human whose experience and aspirations do not count. I know which side I am happy to be on.

ADDENDA: I have edited this post a bit to clarify some points, add or extend others, fix some grammatical errors, etc without changing the basic arguments. It is something of a work in progress.

Father Figure

It would be wrong to call Beverley Nichols’s memoir of his upbringing, Father Figure, a tale of unremitting horror – that would be unfair to the moments of wit, humour and insight. Yet the moments of light only serve to create counterpoints for the darkness and cruelty which shadowed and twisted his, and even more his much-adored mother’s, life.

The darkness and cruelty came from his father, John Nichols, a handsome and successful solicitor able to retire in his thirties as a gentleman of leisure. He thereafter devoted himself to his passions for domestic cruelty, spurious self-importance and drunkenness: ego inflation via pomposity and pain to hide and feed the emptiness within.

John Nichols was an alcoholic: or, as Beverley Nichols describes him, a drunk and a dipsomaniac. John Nichols was a drunk of regular patterns. Early on, Beverley Nichols was able to discern precisely, from his father’s behaviour, at precisely what stage in the cycle of drunkenness he was at: great training for a writer, no doubt.

While John Nichols was capable of great cruelty towards his sons – his destruction of young Beverley’s musical aspirations is almost unbearable to read – it was to his wife that he directed the full force of his clearly great and honed talent for cruelty. (Beverley thinks a certain physical fear of his sons retrained him towards them.) Beverley never describes any physical or sexual abuse by his father. The abuse was all emotional, but still cruelty in all its evil.
The person Beverley describes is, in many ways, not really a person at all. Father Figure is a redolent and telling title: everything was driven by the demon drink that possessed him. And possession is exactly what Beverley took it to be.

The great comfort of his upbringing was the deep mutual love between his mother and her sons. At one stage, he writes about his frustration in not being able to bring her sufficiently alive in his writing. As he says, that is partly because he cannot – as one would in a novel – create fictional moments that reveal character. He can only describe and rely on the limitations of memory. (Particularly as he wrote the book over thirty years after her death.)

But one can also see another limitation that haunts him. Why did she put up with it? That a woman of her time (she died in 1939)—the income from whose (significant) money had been handed over to her husband—had very poor choices is true enough. (Though her basic capital was beyond his reach, important at the end.) Her notion of the married state was that, once in, there was no way out. That one endured. And yet she also served as the ideal victim to possessed man she married: having been a youthful beauty with a golden childhood. Beverley describes his parents as two people perfectly formed to destroy each other. Enduring was not resisting: indeed, it was providing an object, an outlet and victim who was also a live-in nurse and protector.

Over time, she acquired various defence mechanisms, various substitutes for the autonomy and control she surrendered. Beverley describes these well, and his frustration with them. His frustration with her is a bit more removed, and seems to have got in the way of fully invoking her. In any family life of cruelty, there is the perpetrator and the facilitator (though sometimes the role shifts back and forth). Stoic endurance facilitated, even encouraged: it did not genuinely shield.

Beverley’s descriptions of his attempts to kill his father fit perfectly in with the twisted horror of it all. As do the steps of the final revenge. Her sons prevailed upon her to change her will to leave all her money to them, cutting out their father and her lifelong tormentor. Even that level of resistance was almost beyond her.

After her funeral, Beverley took his father to Plymouth – which he had nominated as having pretty girls to look at. His father was full of anticipation of getting a woman to share his well-funded old age, now he would be inheriting his wife’s money. He has one last glass of wine, then Beverley delivers the blow. He tried to use the weapon he always used against his sons – I will tell your mother! But, of course, he cannot. She is no longer there to torment and she has delivered this first and final act of resistance. His father never drank again.

Even though Beverley tells us the ending of the story, there is a certain reticence in delivering the full implications. The reader can work it out, and Beverley is certainly forthcoming on the dynamic from his father’s side. But that last element in the horror, that in his mother leaving and resisting his father’s drinking stopped, he cannot spell out anywhere near as clearly. How could he? (Those of us who had difficult upbringings will perhaps be more aware of the silences.)

In his introduction, Beverley mentions his play, The Shadow of the Vine, and receiving letters from women asking how could he have possibly have understood their lives so well, the little horrible details of living with a drunkard. As he says, the book is an answer to that. But perhaps not to the question that haunted him.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spare us from grown men and professors being “provocative"

Back in August 2007, I went to the MacGeorge Lecture as part of Melbourne University's School of Historical Studies Winter Lecture series.

Professor Donald Preziosi, Oxford University gave the lecture entitled Art, Religion, and Amnesia. His basic text was Plato's banishing of (mimetic) art from his ideal society. In effect the "ur-text" 2500 years of religious (and political) worries about the subversive ("problematising") nature of art. In seeking to understand Plato's concern—and the concerns of all those who have seen art and representation as various forms of blasphemy—Prof. Preziosi contended that there was a terror inherent in the nature of representation; that art and religion were two sides of the same phenomena, that religious fear of art was matched by artistic fear of religiosity; that art as representation encouraged thinking of otherness which exposed and undermined the artifice of religion, an artifice such that religion needed to create amnesia about its own artifice; that a sense of the spiritual and the immaterial were created out of the works of the religion rather than religion expressing any truth about putative matters spiritual and immaterial.

One of the frustrating aspects of the lecture was that when Prof. Preziosi spoke in plain English, he would tend to say some striking and thought-provoking things. As soon as he lapsed into polysyllabic academic buzz words, the intellectual quality would drop dramatically. The lecture included some backdrop images: these were not worked into the presentation much, they function more as somewhat dissonant and distracting backdrops. No doubt intentionally so, but also quite childishly so.

In fact, a certain tiresome undergraduate snootiness pervaded the entire lecture. A nose-thumbing immaturity parading as intellectual provocation. Being so busy showing how clever one was at "seeing through" things as to fail to see the things themselves precisely because of a lack of mature engagement with wider society.
Prof. Preziosi is a strong critique of art history. Particularly in response to a question, he critiqued art history as having been born in a notion of particular peoples having particular art. It is pretty easy to pick apart C19th nationalist scholarship. The sad thing was that much of what Prof. Preziosi was offering was current conventional pieties parading as scholarship sneering at preceding sets of pieties formerly paraded as scholarship. So we got the conventional sneerings at Dubya and his religiosity (supporting Dubya would have been far more provocative: but it was mostly faux provocation being offered). Religion was treated as only being fictive. As only being structures of power. (Apparently, no religion ever started out of power, nor involved genuine belief.)

The Professor's approach to representation and signification was very much a semiotic one. Which suffers from the normal problem of such critiques—being so busy analysing the utility of such things for and in power structures as to lose all sense of what such things are for in the first place. After all, they only have any utility for the powerful because they have uses and value regardless of power. Power hijacks them and their uses, it does not create such.

I was particularly unconvinced by his explanation of various forms of iconoclasm as being about a fear of representation. On the contrary, it is about the primacy of the word. It is monotheistic religions particularly focused on sacred texts—Judaism, Islam, anxieties in a literate Empire, an explosion of texual awareness under the impact of printing—which generated iconoclasm. Not some generic fear of representation and otherness. After all, the Catholic Church rejected Plato's artistic nervousness: in Pope Gregory the Great's words,
pictures are used in churches so that those who do not know their letters may be a least by looking at the walls read what they cannot read in books.
The Danish cartoon controversy provided part of the lead in to the lecture, but that example too is misleading. The use of the Danish cartoons to harden Islamic attitudes was no different from the use of The Satanic Verses to harden Islamic attitudes.

Yes, it is perfectly true that one has to have words to have religion and words are a form of representation. But one has to have words to have any society beyond the most minimal. Any notion of truth involves a notion of falsity, any notion of respect a notion of disrespect. Blasphemy is just a particular label for abhorred belief, and given that progressive academics such as Prof. Preziosi have a battery of abhorred beliefs, it is particularly silly to get snooty about blasphemy. Being racist is, after all, contemporary academic blasphemy.

It was at least cheering that the lecture proceeded without manifesting any of normal academic obssession with racism. Alas, a questioner raised the issue of an exhibition on Australian Impressionism which only had one black face. So the good professor explained how art history was inherently racist in its origins. Sigh. Modern academe—particularly with its tendency to lump tribalism, xenophobia and chauvinism under the simplistic rubric of racism—tends to be much more obsessed with race than past societies were. Confusing obsessions of the relatively recent past (say 1850 onwards, earlier in the settler societies) with quite different previous constructions of identity.

Still, there were glimmerings of some striking ideas amongst the tedious conventionality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

War and Peace and War

War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations is a book by a biologist (Peter Turchin) who has wandered into history (a la Jared Diamond): his website is here. It is a very imaginative updating of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of cycles using modern demographics to explain the dynamics of imperial nations.

The theory is based around Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyyah or “social cohesion”. The ability to cooperate effectively is fundamental to imperial nations. Turchin argues that this arises on metaethnic boundaries (faultlines between groupings of ethnicities) in situations of intense competition. Once high levels of asabiyyah have been achieved, they can persist for centuries. But imperial success then sets in pace processes by which asabiyyah declines. Once it has collapsed, the lack can persist for centuries.

That empires are founded by militarily effective folk and militarily effective folk arise in areas of lots of prolonged military activity is hardly a startling claim. Nor is that cooperation is necessary for military effectiveness. Still less that more ferocious selection mechanisms can lead to creation of effective predators. What makes Turchin’s analysis striking is his analysis of the demographic dynamics of disintegration and reintegration in agrarian societies.

In agrarian societies, imperial success means rising population. As population rises, inequality increases (since, once the advantages of scale and scope for a given level of technology have been captured, land is a basic constraint). The social middle collapses, as land holdings are divided and fall below the level able to sustain those living off it. Land is sold to pay for food. It is sold to the wealthy who accumulate increasing assets. The increasing inequality undermines asabiyyah. If not checked by an external threat forcing reordering of the social contract to face it, the process continues until asabiyyah collapses and the Imperial structure along with it.

Within the grand cycles of imperial rise and fall, there are smaller cycles of integration and disintegration driven by changes in the elite. Imperial success means the population of the elite rises faster than the means to sustain them in the style they aspire to. This leads to intense competition within the elite up to the point of civil war: if that conflict “thins out” the elite enough (without destroying the imperial structure itself), the disintegrative phase may be followed by an integrative one. Even within the disintegrative phases, there are “father-and-son” cycles, where the father’s generation fights bitterly, their sons’ seek to avoid the mistakes that lead to violence, but the underlying pressures still exist, so their grandsons repeat the pattern as memories of the causes and consequence of civil strife fade.

Peter Turchin backs up his theory with a series of case studies. His discussion of Roman and medieval French history (with asides to medieval English history) were very revealing and full of useful and striking information. (The sort of detail that social analysts love but historians often leave out.) Since I had already in part analysed “political correctness” as a manifestation of elite competition, it was a bit startling to read about a much wider analysis of the patterns of such things.

In order to make his theory work, Turchin has to rehabilitate a scientific basis for human cooperation. As he points out, the overwhelming trend of social and biological analysis has been towards individual action. But, he argues, rational choice theory cannot account for the levels of cooperation we clearly observe. At first I thought we were going to get another tiresome straw-person dismissal of economics. Far from it: he concedes the power of rational choice theory—indeed, uses it himself. (His secular cycles are all about changing behaviour from changing incentives.) Turchin just believes it needs to be supplemented by the growing empirical data on human cooperative behaviours. Cross-cultural experimental data suggest that humans divide into “knaves” (always self-interested), “saints” (always moralistic) and “moralists” (moral with punishment). Turchin argues that asabiyyah rises in a situation where moralists can be effective and collapses when they aren’t.

One of the points in Turchin’s favour is that things that struck me as dubious or unexplained when I first read them get dealt with later in the book. For example, he argues that the core regions of the Roman Empire became, and remained asabiyyah “black holes”, particularly Southern Italy. My immediate reaction was: Why not Sicily? Plenty of conflict and frontier activity. But his argument is more sophisticated—that any revitalisation was overwhelmingly dealing with small elites (such as the Normans) who, once they get absorbed into the local population, replicate its (notoriously) uncooperative social patterns. He also argues that the socially disintegrative effects of mass slavery can persist long after the institution has been abolished.

He is very much of the view that the Byzantine Empire is such a different beast from the preceding Roman Empire: that it should be understood as, effectively, a new Empire. Indeed, he regards the Empire as not being Roman in any useful sense after the crisis of the third century. Such relabelling to fit theory always makes me nervous. On the other hand, the Dominate of the later Empire was a rather different beast than the Principate early Empire.

But his use of historical data rang true to me, and I certainly didn't catch any howlers (apart from one passage that used Dominate and Principate the wrong way round). Indeed, his suggestion that persistent Chinese imperial unity (which, as he points out, is very unusual among human societies) was a result of nomad pressure is certainly a striking thought.

One of the welcome aspects of his approach is that he is very cautious in applying it forward. As he points out, modernity is very different from agrarian societies. He notes some continuing patterns (such as oscillating cycles of equality and inequality, and rising and falling crime rates) but is not willing to go beyond that. He does argue for the power of underlying social patterns, which is reasonable.

The book is certainly engagingly written and full of useful information. Applying broad demographic patterns intelligently to history is a worthy exercise. No doubt, critics will start to pick away at his thesis. (Or otherwise consider it, as in this thoughtful review from someone with a genetics and population dynamics background.) I am neither entirely convinced nor dismissive: a very thought-provoking book.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Economic ratios: crude but useful

Economists typically divide factors of production into land (the natural means of production), labour (human effort) and capital (the produced means of production). There has been something of an ongoing game in economics and broader social analysis in finding new forms of capital, so we have physical capital (factories, buildings, machinery, tools, etc.), human capital and social capital. As well as, of course, financial capital, but that is (in some ways) the odd one out.

It is a useful, if crude, measure to look at broad ratios. In an agrarian society where capital is scarce, two useful ratios to consider are the land/labour ratio—the number of workers to (productive) land—and the land/population ratio—the number of people to (productive) land. If capital is sufficiently scarce—as in a largely agrarian economy—the former is the main determinant of average wages and the latter the main determinant of average living standards.

So, if population goes up, wages tend to fall since expansion in output does not (without some improvement in technology or weather) match the increase in population, so labour becomes less scarce compared to land (or, more precisely, what labour is providing becomes less scarce to what the land is providing) and labour's price (wages, to use what is often a somewhat anachronistic term) fall. If population goes down, wages tend to rise as labour becomes more scarce compared to land so its price (wages) rises. As, for example, after the Black Death, which killed people not land, building, tools, machines or coins. The land/labour ratio matters because it sets relative scarcity and expresses how much—given the existing level of technology (both physical and social)—can be produced per person.
Obviously, we are talking averages here: this says nothing about how wealth and income are distributed in a society. Wages can rise with population if there are economies of scale (people able to specialize more and so produce more) and scope (more forms of skills or other specializations being available), as in the early medieval recovery from the post-Roman collapse. Basically, if people are able to get more out of what they have. It is what labour, land and capital provide which is crucial (hence the "absent some change in technology/expansion in capital/change in climate" provisos).

You can also get wages rising with population if the amount of productive land is being expanded, as also happened in the early medieval period during the recovery from the post-Roman collapse. It happened even more dramatically (for Europeans) with the European settlement of the Americas and the Antipodes. People talk as if land is fixed but, in economic terms, that is not so. Land can be cleared or reclaimed. It can also become more accessible--refrigerated transport reduced the value of farming land in the UK, for example, because it meant it was competing more directly with Argentina, Australasia, etc. Land can be used for different purposes. So, for example, if officials have discretionary control over land use (such as for housing), that can create housing price bubbles, as a constrained quantity response leads to an increased price response to increased demand. That turns houses into inflation-beating-assets, so people invest in them in part as inflation-beating-assets. Until, of course, the belief that prices will just continue to rise collapses, so they stop being inflation-beating assets—that part of their value being partly or completely wiped out as the bubble “bursts”.

The ultimate point being it is not land on its own which is productive, but land use.

Once capital becomes a significant part of the productive processes, one gets major shifts, since capital is far more expandable than use of land. In industrialised economies, the capital/labour ratio becomes much more important. Wages tend to rise because capital tends to expand faster than the labour force, at least in capitalist economies. In other words, increasing levels of capital makes labour more scarce even if population is increasing.

But this is a ratio thing. Increasing the labour supply must put downward pressure on wages by making labour less scarce than it otherwise would be. So the movement of women into the paid workforce and large-scale immigration have put downward pressure on average wages, even though household incomes have tended to increase (since they include more income-earners). Increasing levels of capital can, however, compensate, or more than compensate, for rising labour supply.

For example, Jewish migration to Palestine increased wages, since the migrating Jews increased the total level of capital more than they increased the population. The increased wage levels attracted non-Jewish migrants. Both rising wages and out-migration upset the social control mechanisms of the local landlord class (such as debt-bondage). It is not surprising that a prominent member of said landlord class led agitation against the upsetting newcomers, rather than trying to seek some mutually beneficial arrangements. (The freedom, democracy and prosperity of the “Zionist entity”—nowadays very visible through TV and TV ads—continue to be a standing indictment of various Arab regimes.)

There are lots of complications, such as labour/capital ratios varying between industries. Still, economic ratios—crude though they are—are useful in understanding broad trends in societies and economic history.

ADDENDA: This post has been amended to improve clarity and to expand points.

Modelling the Medieval

Hatcher and Bailey’s Modelling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England's Economic Development examines the various “supermodels” of medieval (particularly English medieval) history: the demographic model (Malthusian or neo-Malthusian), the class model (Marxist) and the commercialisation model (Smithian).

The first sees demographic pressure (particularly the land/labour ratio [see next post], its effect on living standards, and therefore fertility and mortality) as the main driving force in medieval economic history. The second sees class struggle, primarily between landlords and peasants, as the main driving force. The last sees the growth of towns, increasing monetisation, specialisation and technological advance as the key driving force.

Hatcher and Bailey start off with an introductory chapter on historical methods and the role of the “supermodels”. Each is then examined in turn—what it says as shown by prominent practitioners, its strength and weaknesses in the light of the evidence. Each is seen as capturing important parts of English economic history. Each is also seen as trying to ultimately explain too much with too little.
A conclusion I have no problem agreeing with. Reading the chapter on the Marxian model (Class Power and Property Relations) brought home to me once again why I find Marxian analysis ultimately unsatisfactory. Classes are not historical agents in the way such analysis ultimately needs them to be. Coordination of a class is a public good that is not automatically provided. Indeed, the most intense competition tends to be within rather than between classes—between those seeking to occupy the same social roles, based on the same skills and assets. For example, it was fairly rare for lords and knights to die at the hands of peasants. It was far more common for lords and knights to die at the hands of other lords and knights. (It is not clear that the same point does not also apply to peasants.)

Moreover, members of different classes are often complementary in their roles: a point that Marxism, with its insistence that all elite groups are fundamentally “exploitative”, has inherent difficulty acknowledging.

Even more fundamentally, Bailey and Hatcher neglect, as contemporary medievalists (living in very safe milieus in very safe societies) frequently do, the fundamental problem of medieval society—how to maintain public order. Yet this was clearly basic to medieval social arrangements. It is all very well to talk about heriot, merchet, and similar obligations of manorial economies (p.79), but to do so without thinking through why they exist (as ways of stabilising provision of public goods subject to free rider problems) is rather to miss the point. Particularly given that medieval writings themselves are quite clear about the basic “public order” duties of lordship.

So, for example, the more the structures organised by the English Crown were able to maintain public order, the less bargaining power the lords had—both with the Crown and with the peasants.

Even more directly, the less important the lords were for providing the Crown’s military forces, the less bargaining power the lords had. In many ways, the “ cashing out” of military services was the most important form of “commercialisation” of the later medieval period. The English Crown had little incentive to provide the coordination the lords needed to resist increased peasant bargaining power when the land/labour ratio crashed due to the population "die-back" of the Black Death (so labour became more scarce and thus more valuable) because taxes (and, for that matter yeoman archers) were far more important to its military forces than whatever decadent elements of lordly service remained.

This is in direct contrast to what happened in Eastern Europe when the land/labour ratio dropped due to the defeat of the “ Tartars” making accessible to farming huge tracts of land. There, the service-nobility were crucial to military forces, and so Russian Tsars, Polish kings, etc actively supported enserfment, providing the coordination and enforcement the service nobility was not able to manage on its own. Rulership is generally a far better enforcer of cartels (including class cartels) than private action.

It was somewhat startling to read (p.202) Hatcher and Bailey citing the way serfdom waxed and waned, precisely as predicted by economic theory of bondage (with the exception of Western Europe after the Black Death), as evidence against a supply-and-demand analysis. It is quite clear that they are misled by being over-impressed by the anomalous case of Western Europe (particularly England) after the Black Death: the atypical being taken as benchmark.

On the other hand, I entirely agree that attempting to explain the demographic drop during the great famine and the demographic collapse during the Great Pestilence as being other than from exogenous factors ( climate change and a new disease hitting a non-resistant population) is trying to make a model “explain” far too much.

Like the authors, I have no difficulty accepting that population growing faster than cultivation of land could be expanded would put downward pressure on living standards, as per the demographic model: or that a sudden dramatic drop in the land/labour ratio due to demographic collapse could (provided the social order was sufficiently resilient) create upward pressure on living standards.

But the situation where such a constraint is taken away (in this case by the dramatic drop in population) then creates a very different situation. One in which other factors can come to the fore. The demographic model simply cannot clearly account for why the population level remained static for at least a century after the original Great Pestilence. Or explain why C14th England had a very different social and economic outcome than did C17th Russia when the land/labour ratio suddenly changed.

Nor do I have any quarrel with Hatcher and Bailey insisting, against the commercialisation model, that living standards did fall in the late C13th, that capital in all its forms did not expand fast enough to compensate for the rise in population.

After examining each of the three models, Hatcher and Bailey then emphasise, as their chapter title says, The Importance of Time and Place. Apart from their misreading of the economics of serfdom, which suggests they can be a little over-impressed by the particular, I have little quarrel with their intelligent discussion. The final chapter Beyond the Classic Supermodels defends history, particularly against the wilder claims of post-modern theory, as an empirical discipline which does manage to progress. Models are useful as heuristic, and new techniques can improve their utility, but they are guides not answers.

Obviously, I have some disagreements, but Hatcher and Bailey provide a very helpful guide to the three basic models which have been applied to (English) medieval history, their strengths and limitations, and the strengths and limitations of historical models generally.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mystical experience

The following thoughts come from personal experience and reading about mysticism. They are adapted from a letter to a close friend sent in June 1990. Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History Of Mankind, particularly the Introduction, assisted my thinking on the matter.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that human motivations followed a hierarchy of needs – food, security, sex/belonging and esteem. As each level of need is satisfied, behaviour becomes primarily driven by the next level - a simple example of this is the way hunger is well known to destroy interest in sex.

Maslow later suggested that if these needs were met, there is a fifth level, the level of self-actualising - the drive to understand, to know, to create, to solve problems for the fun of it. This is clearly not a matter of intellectual stimulation, though that can function as a proxy. It is much more about having a sense of the world and one’s place in it.

It is fairly clear that the human mind operates on at least two major levels. One is the level of the conscious, ratiocinating self. The other is the feeling, emotional self.

These two levels are by no means necessarily in harmony. Achieving such harmony is basic to the self-actualising level.

Wilson contends, and I agree, that religious and occult aspirations, where not instrumentally directed at lower level needs like sex, esteem, etc., are directed (not necessarily consciously) at achieving harmony between these "selves".

Mystics talk about achieving "unitive" states and "freedom from self" etc.. The unitive states are generally presented as unity with God, or the Universe, but I suggest (following Wilson) that they are better understood as achieving inner harmony: in a sense, unity of the selves.

Having actually had mystical experiences myself, I can testify that such a hypothesis is compatible with the way they feel. I can also agree with the classical authors that achieving a (the?) mystical state aids personality integration.

I achieved a mystical state by accident. I unintentionally followed a traditional path to do so - a new, spartan, environment, solitariness and introspective self-involvement culminating in intense despair (the "dark night of the soul").

Part of the problem in thinking intelligently about mysticism, religion and the occult is that, to an informed, sceptical mind, so many of the metaphysical propositions of such systems are an affront to common sense and/or scientific knowledge and propounded with little grasp of evidence. The logic often leaves much to be desired as well. Much of the way adherents and others talk past each other is due to discussing mystical, religious or occult aspirations in terms of truth claims, propositions about the nature of the world.

This rather misses the key point (and can be quite destructive).

The real point is that there is a point to religious, mystical and occult aspirations, though not the one usually understood. They should not be understood as primarily a means of finding out about the world (i.e. an "alternative" to science) but as a means of exploring and integrating the inner self – which includes achieving a harmonious placing of oneself within a view of the world.

Intellectual stimulation can be a good proxy for self-actualising needs, but it is only a proxy, because it does not address personality integration. Occult and mystical systems are, quite centrally, ways of action and it is in that role that they can be useful. The metaphysics can be dismissed, except as an instrumental tool for concentration, mood-setting, etc..

There is a range of basic techniques. One is to so still the ratiocinating self that the emotional self, freed form external stimulation, also quietens and, in this serene placidity, an inner union can be achieved. Zen is perhaps the example of this technique best known in the West.

Another technique is to place oneself within a new, spartan environment, so as to concentrate on one’s inner states then using humility to beat down the ratiocinating self while letting loose, then deflating, the emotional self. Again, the two halves can be harmonised through achieving a common state. This is the method I (accidentally) used. Both Christian monastics and Muslim Sufis used this method.

A further technique is to become deeply involved in a system of symbolism and allegory which both engages the rational mind while resonating with the emotional self. This is the technique of ritual magicians and non-monastic religious devotion.

Another alternative is to use convention breaking and/or narcotics to break down the rigidity’s of one’s previous mindset and ritualised sexual activity to achieve unitive states. Sex has the advantage of being fun and (in good sex) naturally unitive. As with ritual magic more generally, the ritual aspects ensure the rational mind is engaged in a symbology that resonates with the emotional self. Tantra uses this method. If Crowley, Regardie etc. are correct, so did Western alchemists.

The common elements of each technique are removal from one’s normal mindset and the common focusing of thought and feeling, of ratiocinating mind and feeling self, in some shared state.

(Apart from simple provision of "new, improved" endorphin’s and/or simple suppression of need, much of the appeal of narcotics can be seen in terms of their pseudo-unification of inner selves.)

Note that none of these methods are foolproof: far from it. Nor is the harmony necessarily enduring. If one area of one’s life remains persistently disordered, harmony is likely to be a temporary, occasional, erratic thing. (Jewish mysticism, very sensibly, argues for happy married life as the optimum basis for the mystical path: a well-ordered life for achieving a well-ordered soul.)
Something that the above comments do not convey well is the sense of seeing “beyond the veil of the world”, of glimpsing a profounder reality that lies behind and beyond the every-day world we inhabit. I can well see how such an experience could profoundly change one’s perspective.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

American Slavery and Russian Serfdom

Two excellent books on human bondage are Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Fogel is a pioneer of cliometrics, the (particularly statistical) analysis of economic history. Both books are clearly written, tapping into a wealth of evidence.

I was originally interested in reading Kolchin’s book to try and get some indirect insight into medieval serfdom, but Kolchin makes very clear that Russian serfdom was much more like chattel slavery than its medieval precursor. Medieval serfs existed in much more complex social arrangements and generally had relatively static obligations. Russian serfs were literally owned and far more subject to the whims of their owners.

Kolchin characterises both American slavery and Russian serfdom as responses by elites on the periphery of the capitalist world to labour shortage coming from demand for products of labour coupled with low population density. In both cases, the cost of coercion ‘paid off’ economically, particularly as there was deemed to be no moral cost. Kolchin has an excellent sense of how differently embedded in their different societies American slavery and Russian serfdom were (for example, the slaves lived in a slaveholder’s world, the serf’s in a peasant’s world; American slaveholders were much more effective and empowered as a social group than Russian serfowners; American slavery was vibrant and expanding, Russian serfdom was a system in decay).
In the British colonies of North America, indentured servants were the more important response at first to labour shortage, slavery followed later. (Only around 7% of the 9.9m enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic went to what became the US.)

Yet labour shortage does not always lead to bondage. In post-Black Death C14th England, labour shortage speeded the end of bondage. In Russia, the state used its power – which was unrestrained either by geographical competition or institutional checks – to provide a coercive-monopoly solution to labour competition manifested through labour flight (peasants moving to the opened up frontier). In the Americas, importation on the basis of bondage was engaged in (local wage-earners in North America continued to earn well above European wage rates). Medieval England had a tradition of tenant-farming which provided a viable alternative, landowners were willing to compete across the barrier of freedom and the Crown was not sufficiently motivated to use its coercive power to hold the line. The unrestrained state of Tsarism did not offer such social complexity.

Fogel adds in an extra element for American slavery – the efficiency and effectiveness of the gang-system. Slavery was efficient without gangs, but in gangs it reached much higher levels of productivity than free labour for particular crops, notably cotton and sugar. Ironically, the Iberian tradition of transaction-cost-increasing-expansive-official-discretions undermined the efficiency of Latin American slavery, as it undermined economic efficiency generally, while the Anglo-American tradition of transaction-cost reducing legality aided slavery as it aided economic efficiency generally. The American South produced the only slave population which reproduced itself (indeed had high rates of natural population increase: though this may be exaggerated, see here) because it had better health conditions than the Caribbean colonies and more secure property rights than Latin America – slaves were property, were long-term assets, and treated as such. Indeed, American slaves ate better than European workers (and marginally better than American workers). Even West Indian slaves ate better than European peasants.

Only two systems of bondage were violently overthrown. Haiti, 1804 (the only abolition ‘from below’) and the southern US (the only case of large-scale confiscation of private property from citizens in US history). The US system remained viable, with rising slave prices and good economic growth, until the Civil War. But, it was not broadly modernising and increasingly under external assault.

Fogel’s economic grasp is, as one would expect, rather better than Kolchin’s. Kolchin at times talks as if the labour theory of value was correct and all profits are exploitation. Economists call profit residual income because it is just that – what’s left over after production and distribution has been paid for. Which could well be a negative (and often is). It is a great mistake to talk or think of commercial activity as if risk is not a factor.

Fogel goes into considerable detail about the British and American abolition campaigns. One of many ironies is that, in its origins, the British anti-slavery campaign was more dominated by religious sentiment than the American, though religious sentiment was deeply important in keeping the American cause alive. The American Revolution found slavery an insoluble conundrum – it was a revolution for natural equality and property rights, yet slaves were property which contradicted natural equality. Fogel notes that British radicals were suspicious of the anti-slavery campaign because it diverted attention from the plight of the British poor. Abolition did raise the price of sugar, with significant adverse effects on the food budgets of the working poor.

Conversely, Fogel documents how high immigration led to drops in the average height and life expectancy of native-born American workers. He sets out how the anti-slavery campaign forged a victorious political coalition (the Republican Party) on the back of directing worker-resentment away from manifesting as nativist xenophobia to anti-slavery and resentment of Southern ‘Slave Power’. There are some contemporary parallels for such political dynamics.

High immigration advantages new migrants (if they survive the passage) since they benefit from increased opportunities. It advantages owners of capital, whether land (since rents and land prices go up), manufacturing (downward pressure is put on wages while product demand increases), or intellectual (since the migrants are unlikely to compete and services demand goes up – the contemporary tendency of the owners of intellectual capital to attempt to form cartels excluding those with competing ideas increases this effect, since support for immigration is a marker for cartel membership). High immigration disadvantages resident sellers of labour, through downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on rents and land prices, crowding effects, increased crime and increased disease exposure: the combination of which can outweigh increased demand for labour's products in contemporary society and far outdid so in C19th America (when disease control and sanitation were much worse and rates of immigration extraordinarily high).

You could say that C19th resident American workers suffered a milder version of what the previous indigenous inhabitants had suffered from the arrival of a mass of newcomers. Which is not to deny that the US gained both power and dynamism from immigration. (Or, that, for example, the great restriction of US immigration from 1923 was not a major tragedy.)

John Howard’s politics of a sense of control (borders), endorsement and security (family policy, external threat) were not so different from Lincoln’s: Lincoln finessed nativism, Howard finesses general anti-immigration sentiment. Lincoln and co saw off the nativist xenophobia of the Know Nothings, Howard saw off Pauline Hauline. And the jihadis are real enemies.

Reading about actual slavery also brings home how offensive, stupid and intellectually poisonous the term ‘wage slavery’ is; a monstrous case of the common habit of exaggerating the downside, belittling the upside of what is; of dealing not in reality but in a validating fantasy. It was a common trope amongst proslavery advocates that being a wage-earner was ‘really’ like being a slave. Yet, did any ‘wage slaves’ seek to sell themselves into slavery? No. Did any slaves prefer that condition to ‘wage slavery’? No. That American slaves were better-fed than contemporary workers misses the point – people really do not live by bread alone. (The only significant historical instances of people selling themselves into bondage are in life-threatening situations: either sheer hunger – that includes debt bondage – or protection from state or other violent predation.)

That the first state created on the wage-slave rhetoric was also the first modern state to reintroduce actual slavery (the Soviet labour camp system cannot be regarded as anything other than a form of state slavery) probably expresses something deeper. The worship of instrumental utility over such constraints as truth no doubt made it easier, as did the overweening sense of the importance of their intentions. I suppose it does mark a release from constraints – for the new masters. But that is the problem with the radical Enlightenment vision of a utopian release from constraints – it misses the reality of constraints, how humanising they can be and how central to morality they are.

And discovering that slave-owners were generally very practical in their exercise of dominion over their slaves does not in the remotest justify that dominion.

Inequality, family life and religiosity

In my post on Stephanie Cootz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage I noted the results that tertiary educated women are now more likely to be married—and more likely to have happy marriages—than low-income low-skill women (Coontz pp 286ff). The pool of potential husbands for the latter being of higher risk and lower benefit (Coontz pp 288ff).

This is one of the several ways that increased higher education increases inequality—by increasing skill differentiation, by compounding household differentiation (high-income women tend to marry high-income men) and by increasing life cycle inequality (low-income students in their 20s becoming high-income professionals in their 40s).
One of the great ironies of contemporary politics is that many progressivist policies—increased investment in higher education, encouraging women to work, high migration intakes, high refugee intakes—all tend to increase inequality by increasing skill differentiation and/or putting downward pressure on wages. Yet the same progressivists have often opposed the economic liberalisation reforms that have allowed capital growth to increase to a level that has ameliorated these effects (given that the ratio of labour to land+capital determines average wages). Hence the centre-left of politics often being the keenest economic reformers—they want the welfare state to work and support the aforementioned policies.

Hence also income equality being a much bigger issue in “Blue State” cosmopolitan America and inner urban Australia/Canada/New Zealand … where such effects are particularly strong and much less of an issue in “Red State” parochial America and provincial/outer urban Australia/Canada/New Zealand … where such effects are much less powerful.

In “cosmopolitan-land”, the higher level of migrants leads to restrictive land-use policies that favour housing-land incumbents, since housing market entrants are disproportionately people with little or no connection to the political-regulatory process. This in turn makes inequality worse and, in the US, encourages young marrieds with children to head to “parochial-land”, which breeds faster due to internal migration, greater child affordability and greater social reinforcement. Hence the baby gap.

It also leads to other forms of differentiation. In Virginia Postrel’s words:
The unintended consequence of these land-use policies is that Americans are sorting themselves geographically by income and lifestyle—not across neighborhoods, as they used to, but across regions. People are more likely to live surrounded by others like themselves, creating a more-polarized cultural map.
Including more religiosity—since that both resonates with, and reinforces, the family-based networking and economic life—in “parochial land” and more secularisation—since folk live more fragmented lives—in “cosmopolitan land”. Which in turn encourages more environmentalism in “cosmopolitan land” since their economic activity is much less connected to the pointy-end of resource-based industries (the things green campaigns want to close down are wildly disproportionately in rural/provincial areas) and conventional religion is less competitive as a source of meaning.

Hence the socio-economic-political clumpings across which political battles are fought. Different experiences of life leading to different outlooks. Which is only difficult to understand if one is committed to belief that your experience of life, or your outlook, or both, is some how morally and intellectually privileged. Then the world will keep surprising you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spirit and Flesh

James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church is a book by a sociologist about his study of a fundamentalist Baptist church. A study which became the basis for an award-winning documentary, Born Again.

It is a very personal book. Ault’s reactions and experiences are at the centre of the narrative. It is also a very observant and humane book. Ault genuinely seeks to understand—and comes to appreciate—the perspective of the fundamentalist Christians he is studying. The congregation of a small, new Baptist church in New England founded by a Pastor of Italian Catholic background.

The book is not only a product of about three years of fieldwork and then film-making the mid 1980s, but years of thought, research and subsequent contact since. On the way through Ault (the son of a Methodist Bishop) became a Christian, though of an Episcopalian rather than fundamentalist or Baptist variety.

The book is an excellent insight into fundamentalism in the US; its history, reach and staying power. Outsiders typically think of fundamentalism as being megachurches and televangelists. As Ault makes very clear, its real backbone is a mass of small churches across the US. Whose members are likely to be quite dubious about the televangelists. And have little contact with (and may not even have heard of) organizations such as Moral Majority (p.118).
By a mixture of reportage and analysis, Ault develops an understanding of the attractions of fundamentalism, how it works, how it arises from (and shapes) the lives of believers. Part of the way he does this is to contrast it with the outlook of academics—his world—explaining how and why academics and other urban professionals persistently and systematically misunderstand what is going on.

Ault is particularly good at teasing out the hidden consistencies behind apparent contradictions. Where the glib response is to note that folk who are against abortion are also often in favour of military spending and capital punishment and yell “hypocrisy!” and engage in some belittling reductionism, Ault sees it as arising out of a sense of duty natural to lives lived of and conceived as reciprocal duties within family networks incorporating a very strong ethic of personal responsibility (pp101-2). Similarly with their opposition to (government) welfare (pp99ff) while their own lives are pervaded by acts of charity and support.

While Biblical notions of the husband as the head of the family are accepted, so is the underlying ethic of reciprocity. Indeed, the latter seems to win whenever there is a clash. Ault is very good at teasing out how much Second Wave feminism—with its emphasis on women having careers, being independent and its critique of gender roles—comes across to women whose lives are lived in extended family networks (themselves based on child-rearing) as a systematic attack on them and their lives (pp 91ff, 322ff). A perspective shared across classes (p.325). And that a very oral and talk-oriented culture of extended kin networks provides many ways for women to powerfully influence what goes on (pp 317ff). Pastor Valenti himself notes that his congregation grew mainly by attracting women who then bring their families (p.381n).

Academic problems
One of the attractions of the book for me is that Ault is very perceptive about the failures of contemporary academic culture—failures that get in the way of its prime duties: pedagogy and scholarship. What Ault brings out particularly clearly is how the very different life patterns, family and friendship networks of academics and urban professionals (such as journalists and commentators) lead them to see things in particular ways and not understand how very particular their viewpoints are.

I had thought about the career path of academics—individualist and transnational while involving self-selection (what makes me fit in) and peer selection (where “soundness” as a criteria for employment easily shades into conformity). Ault notes warnings that admitting he had become a Christian would be problematic for academic colleagues, pp 338-9).

I had also thought about the mental universe of academics—concerned with the notional, the world of abstract intentions (which Ault also discusses, pp 330-1). Hence criticism of institutions sanctified by such good intentions (welfare, unions, wage regulation, multiculturalism) is taken as to be a malignant denial of said intentions—being a marker of adherence to such intentions being such institutions’ primary virtue—and support for institutions which are not deemed to be conveyors of good intentions (markets, private property, armed forces, police, prisons) is damned as showing malignant intentions. Hence also clashes in perspective between those for whom crime is naturally viewed in terms of social place and general causes as against the more common view of crime as things specific individuals do for which they are responsible.

I had not thought about the family and friendship networks of academics as a factor. Ault points out that academics in particular simply do not live lives embedded in kin networks beyond immediate family and certainly do not work in family-based enterprises. Yet such networks still pervade much of American social life, particularly in small towns. And are almost completely not noticed by academics, still less considered in explaining outlooks and behaviour (pp 112-3, p392n). Conservative America typically lives in dense and integrated networks, quite unlike the more fragmented lives of academics and urban professionals (pp 190-1) Yet, as Ault explains at length throughout the book, such lived experience is quite fundamental to explaining the outlooks of conservative America and, in particular, the perspectives of fundamentalist and evangelical America.

This lack of understanding also leads academics to be regularly surprised by what the society around throws up: most notoriously, the rise of the religious right (p.341). And, one can add, the strength and resurgence of religious belief and religious politics generally.

Ault explains well how very basic differences in premises and assumptions can produce resentment and division. Things one group take completely for granted can be grounds for malignant misunderstanding (p.328). The conservative religious America lives in a world of moral absolutes so discussion that is presumed on there not being any such immediately makes them feel excluded. These differences also leads to folk literally not hearing what each other are saying, since their remarks are interpreted in the hearer’s context rather than the utterer’s (pp 66, 104ff). As Ault notes:
The experience of being judged intolerant by someone who denies your own values while implicitly imposing her own is just one among many sources of resentment that routinely undermine trust and civility (p.329).
Liberal/progressivist “tolerance” notoriously does not extend to being tolerant of conservatives, particularly religious conservatives (pp 368, 401n). Which, of course, just makes conservatives feel righteous in their denunciation and contempt for (US) liberals.

Ault is also very informative on the way tradition can be a way of managing change. Slows shifts contained within reassuring continuities where tradition is a collective possession operating through particular cases (pp 208ff) and change is slow and disguised (p.213). (And therefore, of course, made more manageable and palatable.)

More generally, people can count more than principles (pp 190ff). So divorce is thundered against in abstract but accepted as an understandable solution to particular problems since everything is embedded in the particular (pp 196ff). Hence also different theologies can lead to similar outlooks since they processed through similar life experiences (pp 202ff). Indeed, the Bible was typically understood through such experiences (p.211).

Ault uses attitudes to homosexuality as a bit of a touchstone, since it is clearly something that the fundamentalists strongly reject. A world of firm differences in social roles by gender is one threatened by homosexuality which so transgresses the assumed rules of the game (pp 248-9). Which does not stop them being fond of a gay relative or genuinely friendly with a local gay couple (p.342).

I found Spirit and Flesh an engaging and enlightening book, full of information and insight. (Including in the endnotes, which one needs to read to get the full benefit.) For getting inside the social and mental world of conservative religious America and making it more understandable, it is excellent. In much the same way as The Voices of Morebath conveyed so much more about both late Medieval Christianity and the Reformation than any other book I come across.