Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On socialism

As you probably don’t know, France is ruled by a Socialist Party. Of course, this party is no more socialist than the Institutional Revolutionary Party is revolutionary. It is a pro-statu-quo party defending the interests (and the self-righteousness) of the urban elites and, to a lesser extend, of civil servants. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe, it talks about social reforms and implements a few societal ones, mostly aimed at its upper-middle class clientele. Like all socialist or social-democrat parties in Europe it is also a tool to select candidates to political offices and distribute jobs and petty privileges to its members, a role it fulfills in ever more conformist a way. In that matter, as in the actual policies it implements when in charge, it is not different from its right wing rivals.

Its relationship with what is generally called socialism was rhetorical from the start and is becoming more and more historical with time. This, more than the Cuban or North-Korean carcinomas in situ highlights the failure of socialism both as an ideology and a political practice, even within the ephemeral framework of our civilization.

The word socialism was coined by Robert Owen, a Welsh entrepreneur with a humanitarian bent, in 1817 in a report to the House of Common titled "Plans for alleviating poverty through Socialism". The idea was to create communities of some 1,200 persons all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community. There should be perfect equality of wages. In times, those communities would cover the world because... because it was just so great, you know.

Needless to say, the House of Common was nonplussed, even if it was to create, some 17 years latter, special houses for paupers... in a very different spirit since they were explicitly designed to provide worse working condition than the worst job available outside them. Owen nevertheless persevered, creating various communities, all of which failed spectacularly. The best known of these was New Harmony, in Indiana, which lasted only two years and of which Josiah Warren wrote :

"It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity. Two years were worn out in this way; at the end of which, I believe that not more than three persons had the least hope of success. Most of the experimenters left in despair of all reforms, and conservatism felt itself confirmed. We had tried every conceivable form of organization and government. We had a world in miniature. --we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ...our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation..."

The failure of Owen and of its many imitators, notably Fourrier and Cabet,, resulted in the marginalization of utopian socialism, even though the idea of intentional communities still survives and enjoys, from time to time, ephemeral renewals of interest. These experiments, which were numerous in America during the XIXth, century continued the religious communal experiments of the past centuries, but with a key difference. Unlike in Catholic monasteries or Anabaptist communities, the main goal was not to get the faithful away from the world so that they could reach salvation, but to set an example that the world should, eventually, follow.

In that, socialism, despite what some modern authors such as Michea say, was, from the start, a child of the mythology of progress. Its goal has always been to end misery and inequalities through the application of reason and the domination of Man over Nature. Its main difference with what was called the left during the XIXth century was its attitude toward individualism.

Neither Owen’s utopian socialism, nor the two factions which battled for the control of the first socialist organizations (Marxism and Bakounine’s anarchism), were particularly high on individualism. This should be obvious for Marx, and while Proudhon and Bakounine rejected anything which remotely looked like a law or a political authority, their vision of society looked nothing like Ayn Rand’s. To quote Proudhon :

Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership... We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers' associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic.

In fact, until the end the XIXth century, socialism considered itself as a third force, without any connection with the (then counter-revolutionary) right, but also with the left, which was the party of change, progress and freedom of trade. Even though socialism, in all its incarnations, is clearly a child of the Enlightenment since it aims to free humanity from its condition. Yet, it was ambivalent toward the cult of change and of "innovation" so characteristic of the left. To quote the Communist Manifesto :

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels obviously did not consider this permanent disruption a pleasant process. They did, however, consider it a necessary stage on the road to socialism. To quote them again.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

In short, it is because bourgeois rule is destructive that it creates the conditions for the advent of socialism and humanity’s escape out of history. It is, of course, pure premilenialist logic, but, at least, it assumes that the atomization and permanent disruption brought about by the Industrial Society is a bad thing – the work of the Devil.

We are light-years away from both classical liberalism and Socialist Party members like Donique Strauss Kahn, who claims that "socialism is hope, future and innovation".

Traditional socialism was a critic of modernity, even if a flawed one. It came, however, to ally with the liberal left at the end of the XIXth century to keep the reactionary right to get back into power, at least in Europe. In France it happened during the Dreyfus affair. At first, French Socialist viewed the whole thing as a "Bourgeois civil war" and refused to take side. Faced with the real possibility of a far right coup, however, they decided to ally with the liberal left (then called Republicans, in opposition to the royalist right).

The result has been a gradual ideological absorption of socialism by liberalism – and ironically the marginalization of the liberal parties in all European democracies. This was by no way a fast or smooth process. In France, where the Communist Party remained strong well into the eighties, it was completed only during the presidency of François Mitterand, even though the trend was visible as soon as the late sixties. Of course, this has been helped by the Russian Revolution, the victory of which pushed traditionally minded socialists onto the way to totalitarianism. Once it was associated with the soviet cancerous nightmare, traditional, working-class oriented socialism was bound to collapse with it, leaving the field to liberalism, with its celebration of permanent change, progress and its cult of the individual.

Of course, traditional socialism was bound to fail. As I have said, it was a child of the enlightenment and it aimed to get humanity out of history into some kind of secular heaven. This heaven is certainly more decent – to use Orwell’s word and concept – than its liberal counterpart, but that does not mean it was ever possible on a finite planet.

Had the Russian Revolution failed, a decent socialism, of the kind Orwell advocated might have established itself in Europe, with both democratic institutions and sharp limits to the mercantile logic. It would still have pursued growth, however, and would still have collided, with potentially disastrous consequences, with the limits of Earth’s resources.

Marx and Engels disliked Malthus, and not only because Malthus’ thesis was morally abhorrent – it was, by the way. Socialism, as befits a "modern" ideology as always sought to free humanity from its historical condition, and that is impossible as long as resources remain scarce. Marx, like many authors of his time, thought scientific and technological progress, would ultimately make scarcity a thing if the past. We know now that it was a delusion. The fossil resources, which gave our civilization, an unprecedented prosperity are being depleted at an alarming rate, and it is only a matter of time before the amount of energy available to our society begins to decrease in absolute terms – it is probably already the case for net energy.

Our ability to to keep our society working will decrease at the same pace and eventually, our civilization will fragment and collapse, leaving only ruins in the jungle Whether said society is socialist, liberal or anticapitalist is totally irrelevant to the process.

In that respect, the eco-socialist ideologies which are being developed here and there, are mostly attempts to salvage the messianic ambitions of socialism, that is the very element that doomed it to failure. Often, they amount to nothing more than saying that it’s all the big bad capitalists’ fault, since everybody knows that North Korea is a gigantic wildlife preserve as well as a workers’ paradise.

This does not mean, however, that socialism has nothing to offer the future. It needs, however, to get away from dogma and go back to its roots, that is the moral revolt against the destructive and dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution, a revolt which was not that different from the romanticists’, even if it had a different focus. This is the approach of Orwell, Lasch and Michea, and this moral indignation will remain valid long after socialist dogmas will have be made irrelevant by the fall of the industrial economy. This moral indignation is not only an appeal to society being decent, albeit if it also that. It is the refusal to let mercantile logic invade the whole of society. It is no more a new idea than the romanticists’ call for a re-enchanted world but socialism is the first ideology to express it clearly.

Despite its failure, at least in that particular civilization, it leaves a heritage worth preserving and transmitting. The same way reason should not be allowed to invade the entirety of a civilization’s mental space, mercantile logic should remain strictly subordinate to this civilization’s core values, and notably what Orwell called common decency, that is the basic, unwritten but nearly universal rules our species evolved to make life in society livable. This does not mean, by the way, the elimination of private property – which is the surest way to tyranny – but its subordination to the interests and values of the community.

If we manage to transmit this heritage across the coming dark age to future civilizations, the efforts of generations of activists, no matter how flawed and misguided they might have been from time to time, will not have been vain.

But of course, don’t expect any "socialist party" to play any role in that, they are too busy drinking champagne and celebrating "future" and "innovation".

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Great Pruning

Collapses result in considerable cultural loss and there is no reason to think that the coming one will be an exception. In fact it is likely that the losses, in this domain like in many others, will be larger than most. To begin with, we have more to loose. Fossil fuels have enabled us to both feed and educate more people than at any other time in history. More than two millions books are published world-wide every single year. This is far beyond the capacity of a post-peak, presumably agrarian, society to conserve. This is still more true of movies or television films, which become useless once you have lost the capacity to rerun them. Besides, our storage media have a very limited lifespan and can only be accessed with energy-intensive devices we are very likely to lose during the coming energy descent.

Where medieval books are still readable after a century, our CDs, DVDs and hard drives won’t survive ours and even if they do, they will be as readable for our deindustrial descendants as an eight tracks cartridge or a betamax tape is for the average westerner. When we realize this, our first reaction is to follow the tracks of Saint-Leibowitz and try to preserve as much as we can of our civilization’s cultural heritage.

This is definitely a worthy goal and some parts of our culture need to be salvaged and transmitted if we want future civilizations to be more successful than our own. As the Archdruid stated, ours is the first technological civilization in history. Others will come and we must make sure they are in position to build upon the foundations we have laid.

Yet, this strategy of transmission can disastrously backfire. Our society is doomed to collapse because of its reliance on non-renewable resources but also because, despite being aware of the situation, it has chosen to ignore it. The Meadows Report was published in 1972, when we still had a chance to establish a sustainable technological civilization without paying too high a price. There are deep cultural reasons for that, among which our obsession with “progress” and the dominance of what we call liberalism in Europe, that is the neutrality of the states toward values.

As the French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa convincingly argued, liberalism emerged from the XVIth and XVIIth century religious wars in Europe. Having lived through a period of highly disruptive religious wars. In a civilization where religion held so central a place, such wars demanded an intellectual response lest they tear apart the very fabric of the society.

This response was liberalism, that is the idea that the state was to be neutral not only toward religions but also toward values. Of course, disestablishing organized religions was a good thing, as was the creation of a private sphere, which allows people to pursue their own interests without interference from the state. The logic of liberalism, however, Michea argues, leads to the destruction of the very notion of common values. Since all values are private and that the community represented by the state shouldn’t favor any of them, the only thing which keeps the society together is the relentless pursuit of wealth and the merchant sphere ultimately invades all other social spheres. Besides, since there is no common conception of the common good, conflicts are decided through appeals to emotion, hence the “oppression Olympics” and the shameless exhibitionism which characterize today’s politics – the Femens are a case in point but they are hardly alone.

The availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels definitely helped the development of the progress myth and the slow destruction of communities and of what Orwell called Common Decency. It made possible for the progress myth to fulfill its promises, at least for a time, which was quite an advantage over, say, traditional Christianity. The enlightenment, however, is older, by at least a century than the Industrial revolution and without it the mythology of progress would not have taken hold and the transition to a sustainable civilization far easier.

Collapses destroy the cultural capital of a civilization, relegating once dominant ideologies to the dustbins of history, erasing whole philosophical schools. This is sometimes unfortunate. What survived of classical Greek culture, for instance, was mostly the product of the aristocratic party. We know very little of the intellectual production of the democratic party and nothing of the anti-slavery Athenian movement postulated by Karl Popper. We know also very little of the competitors of Christianity during the 3rd century BC. The arguments of pagan opponents of Christianity are known only through (probably highly biased) quotations by Christian authors and we know still less of the many heretic opponents of early Catholicism.

This can also be fortunate. When at the end of Bronze Age, the Mycenian palaces were burnt by a bunch of unknown but manifestly very angry people, the ideology which supported the palatial system was also destroyed, not just discredited, utterly destroyed. The palatial economy was a kind of proto-communism in which the ruler collected the production of the areas under his control and redistributed it to his followers. Resources were managed by a bureaucracy of scribes and accountants who controlled also trade and craftsmanship in a semi-centralized manner. Such a system was not very conductive to democracy and personal freedom. It also tended to create a lot of outcasts – the kind of people mid-eastern texts call habiru.

When the system was destroyed, not only physically, but also as a concept, the autonomous village community which emerged from the wreckage, laid the foundations of the city-states of the classical age and with it of the market economy and democracy. Had the palatial system survived, nothing of the sort would have happened.

Of course, the present economical and political arrangements are unlikely to survive the energy descent and the current elites will definitely be replaced by something else – probably in a rather messy and brutal way. This does not mean, however, that the ideological apparatus they have built to justify their rule, will not resurface during some renaissance. That is, after all, what happened when the Italian scholars of the Quattrocento rediscovered Greek and Latin authors and rejected, admittedly only to some extend, the heritage of the Middle-Age.

As we slide down Hubbert’s curve, we’ll have to do some ideological triage, burying that part of our heritage which has put us into the mess we are in, and could very well put our descendants into deep troubles should they get seduced by them.

The very idea of ideological triage will probably sound shocking, if not downright offensive to the average American. Europeans tend to be less sanguine, however. We certainly value freedom of expression and consider the free confrontation of ideas as indispensable to the well-being of a decent society. We have also faced, eighty years ago, a cancerous ideology which very nearly plunged our continent into a new dark age. So we have a very limited tolerance toward those who try to revive it.

The French government has recently banned two small far right parties after the death of a far-left activist at the hands of a skinhead. In many European countries, denying the reality of the Holocaust will land you in jail and very few of us have a problem with that.

Indeed, John Stuart Mill, whose seminal book On Liberty, was instrumental in establishing the modern vision of freedom, stated that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." That means that it is perfectly rightful to ban ideas when they cause harm to others. Please note, by the way, that there is a difference between harm and offense. Discrimination against homosexuals clearly harms people. Homosexuality may offense hardline Christians, it does not harm them in any meaningful way.

I think it is obvious to everyone that Nazism and its various fascist siblings are harmful. So are racism and homophobia, as well as ideologies which advocate infanticide and deny personhood to a part of humankind. It is uncertain, however, which part of our heritage is really harmful. While our culture is doubtlessly cancerous, it is far from being universally so. Our habit of treating women like human beings is certainly worth bequeathing to our successors (but not radical feminism), as is our abhorrence for slavery. So are the rule of law (but not the extension of law to the private sphere), government by consent (but not the trampling of common decency in the name of democracy) and the equal dignity of all men (but not the "ideology of the same"), even if those notions predate our civilization, or the concept of representative democracy, which despite its flaws, allows for democratic states larger than your average city-state.

If the mythology of progress, which is at the core of the Enlightenment, is bound to messily collapse, some of its derivatives may be very useful to a future civilization, and may even become a permanent part of human nature – which in a species as ours is as much cultural as it is natural. It is, after all, what happened with the then radical idea that all men are equal in dignity. It arose from Roman imperialism, was formulated for the first time by the Stoics and passed into Christianity then Islam. While its implementation is still, let’s say imperfect, it is accepted, at least in theory, by everybody outside the lunatic fringe.

This handing down of the best of our heritage is not incompatible with the burying of our worst in a great pruning. In fact, it requires it, if we want this best to become a part of future cultures which will have every reason to dislike us. Of course, burying ideas does not mean burying those who hold them. It means not saving them, not transmitting and copying them during the coming long night and the only fire we need for that is the one in our hearths. Lack of resources and the necessity of survival will work for us in that respect. By simply focusing our scarcer and scarcer resources on what absolutely needs saving, we will allow the harmful and the useless to gently slip in the dark. We must, however, be aware of what we do and of why we are doing it.

The cancerous memes in our culture will bring us down. There is little doubt about that, as there is little doubt that future societies will develop their own, probably very different, cancerous memes and succumb to them. That is how civilizations work. We must however make sure that we don’t poison them with our delusions.

The Necronomicon and The Ultimate Resource are probably best forgotten, and if that takes a little help...