Monthly Archives: February 2016

Animism and Capitalism Part 4

As I was working on my thoughts for this part of the series, I came across an article that really spoke to me, and really put into words what I was trying to say for myself. I think it is a good reflection of where on stand, somewhere in the middle, on the issues of socialism and capitalism.

I have said quite a bit in this series on some of the problems with capitalism, especially as it takes form in America. I live here by the circumstances surrounding my birth, but some days I wish I could leave it all behind and move, because if there is one thing that has become very clear to me it is that;

The United States of America is becoming very backwards.

And the article I will be discussing today helps to highlight some of the reasons that is so. Ann Jones starts out with asking a very simple question;

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different? Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they’re concerned, you can’t have one without the other. ”

As a general statement, I am highly supportive of ideals such as democracy and equality, and these are two things that the Nordic countries do very well. Democracy to means rule by the people, for the people. Equality of course means that rights and privileges are enjoyed by all people. In my mind it is synonymous to the idea of egalitarianism, which includes trends such as feminism as well as the fair distribution of wealth. This is a marked difference from America, as Jones points out;

Right there, they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy, run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the superrich. Perhaps you’ve noticed that.”

Yes, I have noticed that in fact, and the political scientists she referenced were from Princeton University. It would seem many of our politicians are on regular rotation between Congress, the Senate, and many of the largest corporations in the country, if not in the world. So many of our policies are being shaped by former employess of companies like Monsanto or Shell Oil, it is not even funny. In addition, more of our countries wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a very few, and these very few are using that very same wealth to seek political office, and running the country. With decisions such as Citizens United, those with money have even more say and power in our political system.

Moving forward with Jones article;

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power—not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a middle path. That path was contested—by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand, and by capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other—but in the end, it led to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the 20th century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps while chucking out the worst.”

I found myself nodding along throughout this whole passage, because this exemplifies more than anything where I stand on the ideas of capitalism. I have very deep problems with capitalism, but neither am I sold on the ideas of the socialists or Marxists, and so that places me somewhere in the middle. I want to walk that middle path, though it is not always a comfortable place to be. You will get flak from one side for being a socialist, and flak from the other for not being socialist enough. I do not strive to please everyone, and I certainly don’t aim to.

I do want to be clear on one point. Even though people like Bernie Sanders may call himself democratic socialist, the Nordic model is not socialist. It is a social democracy, a kind of capitalist system. As such, I don’t consider myself a socialist, nor do I consider myself a capitalist. There is that middle ground thing again.

All the same, I think the idea of mixed economy is a great one. We can still have private businesses, while at the same time redistributing the wealth it creates for the benefit of everyone. Also, we can have a strong public sector to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and reinvest wealth into research and technological innovations that could make things like Peak Oil and non issue, and we would be in a better position to adapt to things such as climate change. Also, expansion of the public sector could be used to increase the funding and expanse of public land projects, and better conserve and protect our natural resources.

I return here to Jones;

So here’s the big difference: In Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election—including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government—are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the United States, however, neoliberal politics puts the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. “

I want to scream this from the rooftops. This points out better than many thing exactly where the some of the real problems lie with America. Not only are there serious flaws with our method of capitalism, but very serious problems with the ideas behind neoliberal policies. For example, Jones points out;

They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52 percent; in Denmark, 67 percent; in Sweden, 70 percent. Thus, in the United States, oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. “

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. I commented in the last part of this post on how this mentality has crept into major research institutions, and even into our literature and television. The problems with the American system go well beyond these things, and in many ways we have nearly the inverse of the Nordic model. As Jones points out;

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams—to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please. “

Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? Even I can sense some of the Jone’s glassy eyed optimism. Of course, let’s be realistic. No system of government is perfect, which she acknowledges at the end of her article;

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort. You might think of it as slow democracy. Even so, it’s light-years ahead of us. “

Denmark has done a pretty ugly thing with confiscating valuables from refugees, whereas Sweden has accepted more than any other country except Germany. Also, Norway has a portion of its wealth coming from an oil boom, that in the long run is not sustainable.

Still, I think that last part is the most important. Even when we compare the US with other developed countries that don’t use the Nordic Model, we still lag behind on many measures. I think America could learn a lot from the Nordic Model, and yes it is safe to say I will be voting for Sanders in the upcoming primary.

It must be said here at the end, that these are momentous changes for a place like America. In fact some (such as Hillary) have gone so far as to call them unrealistic given the political climate. It is that very same climate that is part of the problem. Also, I think the fact that we can point to the Nordic countries and say “it is working for them”, means these ideas are not unrealistic. They are working, and very well for that matter.

Nor am I saying that the Nordic model should be the end game, but simply a peak on the horizon. We have to climb that peak first before we can even contemplate where the next one might be.

And make no mistake, it is a hell of a climb. The changes it would take in America to make this kind of system work would be substantial and imply huge changes in our political, cultural and social ideals.

Those such as Bernie have said it would be nothing short of a revolution…

At very least, it would be a hell of a change.

This series has been a little more political than I originally wanted it to be. Also, it has been a lot more theory than practical application.

As such, in what I hope will be the last part of this series, I am hoping to come to some kind of synthesis of my animism beliefs and some of the things I have talked about in this series.

References;

“After I lived in Norway, American Felt Backwards.” By Ann Jones

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746


Animism and Capitalism Part 3

“Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them? ”

As I said in my last post, for part 3 of this series I wanted to talk about the article I was exposed to through writing my last post; entitled “Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” by David Graeber. I have to encourage you right off to read the article. It is a long one, and while I don’t agree with it wholesale, it has given me plenty to think about, and has certainly challenged a few of my own ideas.

The opening of this post is from Graeber, and I think it is a great place to start. I think it is an excellent question; as a child my first encounter with science ficition was through my dad in the form of Star Trek; The Next Generation. See, I was born in the 80’s, and grew up all through the 90s. I would come back around to more classic science fiction as an adult, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke… and so on. So I think Graeber’s question is a great one. What happened? As Graeber himself points out;

“Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects). ”

I will concede the fact that maybe some of these expectations were unrealistic, but it is the second part of the question that really stands out. Many notable science fiction writers were also scientists and professors. People like Isaac Asimov knew exactly what he was talking about. Brilliant minds that believed we could achieve all these things, some sooner, some later. Still, that leaves the second question unanswered. If these expectations were realistic, what derailed them? Graeber points to one possibility;

“In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns. To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program. Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities. One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills. ”

The fact is that grand projects require time and resources, often in the form of investment. To work on grand projects, you need to pay researchers, scientists and engineers, workers of all sorts. You also need the metal, the plastic, and all the hard resources to build whatever it is you want to build. When you look at the big projects of today, from fusion reactors, to CERN, to the International Space Station, you are looking at collaborative projects that required large amounts of money, resources and international cooperation to be achieved.

As Graeber points out, the fact is that a large sum of government money goes to military, to be spent on military priorities, which of course are focused on matters of security. This has been especially true in the last couple of decades, when non-military research projects such as NASA have been basically reduced to bare bones. Missions to Mars were scrapped due to lack of funding, and a change in government priorities.

I understand the need for a military, and the needs to keep your people safe, especially in the world today. Military spending is one of the very few areas where America is still the leader, as last I knew we spend as much on our military as the next 20 some countries combined (most of which are our allies.) Still, I have to wonder what those kind of resources might have turned into had they gone to something like NASA.

Graeber hammers this point home by saying;

“What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic. ” – Graeber

I studied anthropology and archaeology back in college, and by my own experience this is really apparent. I cannot count how many times my professors commented on the lack of resources that go to the social sciences. Even PhD’s had trouble finding enough funding for basic research. Forget about finding work in your field as an undergraduate, because chances are it is not going to happen. Graeber has more to say on this point;

“My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.”

Universities have the grand ideal of being places of research and learning, and yet even there we find a diminishing share of resources, and fierce competition for the few resources that are allocated. Research into new technologies and new ways of doing things are stymied at every point, and even research findings are jealously guarded. So instead of developing ways to build colonies on the moon, or solve some very serious problems we have today, we instead live in fear of the competition, and fear they will steal our ideas and our funding. That is the result of the corporate mentality creeping into our centers of learning. Graeber says;

“The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on. ” – Graeber

Have no doubt that universities have in fact turned into brands. I went to Michigan State University, and I have great love for the Spartans. Still, for all the research and teaching that did go on at the college, more time and resources were spent on sports facilities and marketing than was ever spent on research and teaching. The fact is that social science research has been very low priority on the funding scale for a long time (even if our overhead is generally lower), and we have gotten to the point that even the hard sciences have started to bemoan the lack of resources; as Graeber points out;

“If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out with minimal overhead largely by individuals, one can imagine how much worse it is for astrophysicists. And, indeed, one astrophysicist, Jonathan Katz, has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences. Even if you do emerge from the usual decade-long period languishing as someone else’s flunky, he says, you can expect your best ideas to be stymied at every point:

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.”

This honestly hurts to acknowledge. That in many ways, our best and our brightest are being being stymied at nearly every conceivable point, at least partly because capitalist ideals and structures have crept into the halls of learning and research. In addition, decades worth of ideological lines of “lower taxes” and subsequent cutting of resources has left behind a crumbling intellectual infrastructure. This could also be linked to a growing wave of anti-intellectualism in several sectors of government. More still, when you add in the corporate mentality and the insidious specter of capitalism, you get an environment that is almost hostile to the goals of research.

Graeber hits this point home;

“That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover. ”

And this is a small part of a much larger set of problems. When we look at the larger whole in America, we see a troubling trend all over. Infrastructure of all sorts is crumbling due to the same ideals that have been explored here. Decades of decline in research, investment in new technologies, and even basic infrastructures has left things in shambles. Common sense says it you want things like decent roads and research funding, it has to be paid for. Instead, we have gotten a long line of so-called “leaders” that had made it a point to slash taxes and the redistribution of wealth at every turn, and at the same time reduced the amount of ever diminishing resources to key social systems such as roads and universities. Add in the fact that corporate/capitalist mentality has crept into many of these institutions, and the recipe is disastrous. Graeber has this to say on these subjects;

“.. It’s not that vision, creativity, and mad fantasies are no longer encouraged, but that most remain free-floating; there’s no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh. The greatest and most powerful nation that has ever existed has spent the last decades telling its citizens they can no longer contemplate fantastic collective enterprises, even if—as the environmental crisis demands— the fate of the earth depends on it.”

And that terrifies me. That many of the factors I have just discussed have lead to a situation in which we are at a disadvantage in even contemplating the very real challenges that face us in the future. It is why other science fiction writers as well as myself have bemoaned the rise of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that has permeated our culture. It is not that these are necessarily bad stories, quite the contrary in many cases.

I enjoy stories like Mad Max, Fallout and zombie movies as much as the next guy. No, it is not that these are bad stories that makes them terrifying, it is the fact that they are a glaring reflection of our current state of thinking. It becomes harder with each passing day to envision a future where we don’t succumb to environmental destruction, oil, water and/or nuclear wars or the possibility that we and/or our civilization is not going to make it.

As a point of curiosity, a friend of mine once put it like this; paraphrased of course.

“Zombie movies and shows are unnerving because in a subtle way, they are preparing us for the possibility that sooner or later someone will come for our stuff. Whether water or brains, it impresses upon us the idea that people will come for us, and these people will be our wives, husbands, our loved ones. And we will have to shoot them without hesitation.”

Scarcity and competition over resources, looming environmental challenges, all things of which that our cultural mentality in many ways has left us ill prepared. This has lead many thinkers to the idea that we need to burn it all and start over, or we need to leave it all behind and take care of our own in some off grid manner. As Graeber points out;

“As an anthropologist and anarchist, I encounter anticivilizational types who insist not only that current industrial technology leads only to capitalist-style oppression, but that this must necessarily be true of any future technology as well, and therefore that human liberation can be achieved only by returning to the Stone Age. Most of us are not technological determinists. ” – Graeber

Modern technology in no way implies a capitalism based society, and truly it is not technology alone that will solve all our problems. The problems ahead are bigger than any one person or community, and it only through collective solutions that we have any chance at all of dealing with problems such as peak oil or climate change. The solutions will need to be implemented at all levels, locally, regionally and globally. Going back to some romanced past time will not be an option, but nor is continuing our current trends.

Threads from the past have led the present, and we look now at the future with trepidation. The question that faces us is how to weave these threads together in the future? Shall we change what needs to be changed, and pull together to solve very pressing problems?

For the next part of the series, and I want to talk about where I stand in regards to capitalism and socialism, and start talking about the practical ways we can adapt to the future.

(P.S. I feel this one is still more capitalism than animism. Maybe this series should have been called “capitalism” solely. I swear some kind of synthesis is coming, but these topics are just so big.)

References;

“Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” By David Graeber.


Animism and Capitalism Part 2

Okay, so this one might be more capitalism than animism…

Recently, as I found myself browsing the internet and I came across a link from Rhyd Wildermuth and found myself following it. What I came across was rather thought provoking, and I felt it deserved a place in the second part of this series.

I encourage you to read the original context of course, as here I will be only exploring snippets that really resonated with some of my own thoughts. It began with a post by a Tumblr user on the Gods & Radicals Tumbler. While I will not recap all that they said; I do want to take a brief couple of excerpts;

But the concept that some thinkers seem to promote as the solution, that we should turn our backs on technology, follow an anarcho-primitivist route, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater….

Seeing the advances of science & technology as ills to be fought, with no sense of the vast improvements they have made to humanity’s condition & quality of life … is an incredibly blinkered position to take. If we can’t advocate for radical change without throwing vast numbers of the population under the bus, how are we in any way improving on what’s gone before?”

Some excellent points are raised by the OP, and I agree generally with the points raised. I have myself come across some of the thinkers the OP is talking about, and I am not sold on their solutions either. I too agree with the final line of the OP, as I in no way can advocate, nor stand by any person that does, any solution that has tied with it a massive death toll (whether human life or non-human). Oftentimes, such causalities are counted among the disabled, the sick, or any one else that may be dependent on modern medicine or technology to survive. I cannot stand by such so-called “solutions.”

Now I want to talk a bit about the response. Rhyd starts first by talking about a subject that I have tiptoed around recently, mostly because I am not all that familiar with the material (something I hope to change), and partially because what I have been exposed to I am just not sold on;

Where I differ with them is actually on the matter of the urban and ‘civilisation.’ It’s similar to my critique of John Michael Greer’s assertion that Industrialisation is the primary ill of society (rather than Capital), or of Deep Green Resistance’s anti-urban (and anti-trans/anti-queer) ideology. The urban (and what springs from it, including technology) can’t be interrogated monolithically, and besides, most of the brilliant things humans do come from our collaboration with each other.

I want to be clear on this point, I by no means accept the idea that “civilization” or industrialization are the primary/chief ills of society. To be fair, they aren’t perfect of course. Plenty of industries are big polluters of both our air and water, and civilization certainly doesn’t get a pass in this regard.

I think Rhyd is right on the mark in this regard, in that these things cannot be looked at as if they were monolithic. Civilization and industry are very complex entities, and even talking about them in the singular is perhaps erroneous. There are civilizations spread across the globe, as there a great plurality of industries. Some are more culpable than others in our current problems than are others, but none are perfect. Rhyd adds more to this idea by saying;

Conversely, though, because technology and “The Science” is seen as monolithic, we find ourselves often being told we need to accept innovations wholesale, without interrogating their social or environmental consequences. Thus, hydraulic fracturing or genetically modified organisms are packaged as the same Technology as the polio vaccine or even sewage treatment. This argument asserts that we must accept it all or reject it all, which is patently ridiculous.

The point he makes about not interrogating the consequences is an important one, and one I fully agree with. I once heard it explained beautifully by a dwarf in a game called Arcanum;

“ “When humans first see some new technology, their first thought is often ‘what can I use this for?’; when they should ask ‘what is the cost of its use?” ”

I have my the point before on this blog that it is not so much a matter that we do some of these things (with that caveat that we consider the consequences), but more of matter of how we do these things. It is not so much a matter that we have things such as electricity, computers, and cars, but more of the fact that how we fuel and produce these things is polluting the planet. Rhyd hits on this idea a little bit himself;

Conversely, though, because technology and “The Science” is seen as monolithic, we find ourselves often being told we need to accept innovations wholesale, without interrogating their social or environmental consequences. Thus, hydraulic fracturing or genetically modified organisms are packaged as the same Technology as the polio vaccine or even sewage treatment. This argument asserts that we must accept it all or reject it all, which is patently ridiculous.

And then there is that bit about Capital. Capitalism to me is the idea that everything; from humans, to resources, can be given a monetary value; traded, exchanged, extracted, and exploited for profit. To aquire and retain as much capital as possible, because especially in America, capital/money is power, political, cultural, as well as social. It is a really complex set of ideas, that has a nasty habit of creeping into everything. I am sure better and more versed minds have said more on this topic.

There is one last quote from Rhyd I want to explore;

The third complication with technology, and one of the ways I resonate with Anarcho-Primitivism, is that technology/science/progress are presented as cures for the problems caused by Capital. You’re certainly aware of “Green Capitalism” and other such narratives which suggest that we need not change the core engine behind our social relations (to each other and to the earth) but only invest more money into new technologies which will make the machine run ‘cleaner.’ John Gray calls that the ‘cult of progress,’ and I would have to agree. ” – Rhyd

I have said before that we have the technological capacity to make the machine run “cleaner”, and in fact retrofit/rebuild the machine of technology and industry to such a degree that they only resemble the machines of today in passing. Yes, we do need more investment in technology to get us away from fossil fuels but.. I have never just advocated that we need to change the machine, but our relations with it as well. Individual solutions as trumpeted by green capitalism will never solve the problem. Technology alone will not solve the problems either. Yes, we need to build a better machine, but we also need to rethink and rebuild our relations with it as well.

In summary, I think science and technology are part of the solution, but only one part.

The other part involves a change in ourselves, our relations, and societies. A different way of doing things.

In the next part of this series, I want to explore the essay by David Graeber called “On Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”; which I was exposed to thanks to Rhyd’s response.

So much more to chew on.

Thanks for reading!

References;

Gods and Radicals Tumblr