Excerpts from Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis
Valedictory.— Our civilization is approaching the end. We’re peering over the precipice, and chaos boils below. The time has come to sum it all up, to take account of where we are and what we’ve done, and to pass judgment. We, the generations now living, have been lucky or unlucky enough to be present as history nears its climax; we have an abundance of human experience to survey and draw conclusions from, conclusions to pass on to posterity as it surveys the even more breathtaking ruins we’ll leave behind. We want to go out with some dignity, with positive lessons to impart to our descendants so that they know not all of us were idiots. We’ve lived long enough to learn life’s truths; we’ve suffered enough to be wise. Let’s cast our glance from the future to the past and grasp the threads of human thought while there is still some link between what was and what is, some memory of what is rapidly fading. Perhaps some future explorer will discover our buried treasure, our Dead Sea Scrolls, and read about lost worlds, and be carried away by tales of folly and adventure. In the meantime, a few glimmers of honesty and perspective may light up our world and reveal it to itself…
Advice for writers.— In general, it’s a good idea for writers to imagine how their work would be seen by posterity. Would their descendants view it as parochial, time-bound, and faddish, or would they still find intrinsic and timeless merit in it? Would it hold up in a different cultural context? If not, the writer should rethink his work so as to give it more universal relevance, thereby heightening its artistic and intellectual value. It’s true that one cannot, even in imagination, entirely rise above one’s culture and view its artifacts from the outside; nevertheless, insofar as we’re humans and not mere cultural byproducts, the exercise is partly within the bounds of possibility. Indeed, people are constantly judging their societies and particular social practices from a human, semi-“objective” standpoint; such are moral judgments, properly so-called, grounded in the timeless and universal morality of the Golden Rule, i.e., respect and compassion for others. Aesthetic and intellectual judgments, too, are not mere epiphenomena of a particular culture but are natural, though socially influenced, expressions of innate structures in the human cognitive and affective faculties. The writer’s, in fact the artist’s and philosopher’s and scientist’s, task ought to be to transcend the limitations of time and place and appeal to the highest standards of the innately human. Ideally his work would be “immortal.”
Enlightenment.— Said Samuel Johnson, on art: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just [i.e., true] representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.” This statement is a sufficient indictment of most postmodernist art, and most things culturally postmodern. It’s time we turned away from relativism, solipsism, social atomism, fragmentary perspectives, ironical self-consciousness, instant gratifications, pop art, pop philosophies, and commodified creativity. Honesty and truth are overdue.
On the use and abuse of “perspective” for life.— There are delights and dangers in adopting a broad perspective on oneself and one’s society. Looking at the “big picture” can either electrify or paralyze one’s will. The latter possibility is obvious, given, for example, the big-picturesque horrors of global warming and capitalist global pollution. Oceanic garbage patches the size of continents, slums the size of cities, cities disintegrating into slums, and a planetary future incinerated in the vortex of capitalism are not things that quicken the will to live. Internecine violence running riot from Mexico to the Middle East, from central Africa to Russia, as governments outdo each other in the art of cultivating murderous resentments, does not inspire confidence in one’s ability to make meaningful change. Despair on a cosmic scale, encompassing life from low species already extinguished to high species threatened with extinction, suffocates “optimism of the will,” “pessimism of the intellect” alone remaining.
The added burden of such modern afflictions has done nothing to ease the ancient burdens philosophers and poets have bewailed since the Upanishads. Earth is a pale blue dot in the infinite expanse of desolate space. What matter our little earthly tribulations or triumphs? Someday we’ll all be gone, Earth itself will be gone, and it will be as though nothing ever was. No art, no music, none of the sound and fury of a Faustian but forgotten history. “All is vanity!” The flower of youth wilts, as poets have lamented for millennia, withering into a decayed old age and finally death. Pleasures are evanescent; time consumes all, like Saturn devouring his children. The transience of everything makes life seem meaningless—as does, in another way, the immensity of Earth (however microscopic it is on the cosmic scale), the prodigious mass of humanity compared to which the individual is too puny to mention. People come and go like flies. –The plaintive cry of Ecclesiastes still resonates two thousand years later.
On the other hand, the “big picture” need not be utterly demoralizing. To contemplate the grandeur of the universe can be a nearly religious experience, Kantian in its sublimity. “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe,” Kant said, “the more often and the more intensely we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” One feels vanishingly insignificant but gloriously exalted at the same time, uplifted to dazzling infinity as one glories in the ability to reflect on this black unbounded cosmos. The relative immensity of Earth, likewise, and one’s being a mere momentary individual among billions, fills with wonder and awe, even love for all fellow creatures stranded inexplicably on this floating island in space. Time itself overawes. Translucent as a pellucid mountain river, the life-engendering flow of time carries us along to experience the beauty of change. The broad human perspective illuminates hope and the reality of change.
To glance over the modern world is to know the temptation of despair, but it is to know possibility as well. Fatalism is a factually incorrect philosophy. Horrors happen daily, but from a broad perspective one sees also constant kindnesses and life-saving interventions. A billion moments of moral beauty every day; ten billion meaningful connections between this life and that life. Even lost in anguish, even surrounded by modern ugliness, one can see beams of hope piercing the gloom. To know the true urgency of humanity’s situation, however, should entail not wretched immobility but galvanized movement, passionate activism. When people join together they can make meaningful change.
The Goethean possibilities of history.— A major advantage of living at this time, so late in history, is that the past is a kaleidoscope of cultural achievements, or rather a cornucopian buffet whose fruits one can sample—a kiwi here, a mango there—a few papayas—and then choose which are one’s favorite delicacies—which are healthiest, which savory and sweet—and invent one’s own diet tailored to one’s needs. History can be appropriated by each person as he chooses, selectively used in the service of his self-creation. The individual can be more complete than ever in the past! Only, to bring the magnificent array of possibilities down to earth and so give all people the means to sample history’s treats requires a revaluation of society’s values and transformation of its structures. It’s time we spread the banquet not in the gilded halls of the elite but in the humble homes of the people.
Goetterdämmerung.— Albert Camus: “We [moderns] read more than we meditate. We have no philosophies but merely commentaries. This is what Étienne Gilson says, considering that the age of philosophers concerned with philosophy was followed by the age of professors of philosophy concerned with philosophers. Such an attitude shows both modesty and impotence. And a thinker who began his book with these words: ‘Let us take things from the beginning,’ would evoke smiles. It has come to the point where a book of philosophy appearing today without basing itself on any authority, quotation or commentary would not be taken seriously.” The reality that he describes is nothing else than institution-think. Expertly calibrated, self-replicating capitalist-friendly institutions dominate culture, and such institutions cannot get to the heart of the matter or exalt the sort of world-engendering creativity that highly ennobles. What they can do is manufacture minute monographs, reduce to the common denominator, and make ever less relevant to human concerns. I recall what I wrote once in college:
Looked at the Tufts University philosophy department website; I might apply there. Part of its mission statement is “to provide students with the skills necessary for Ph.D. research, as well as to foster the independence of mind required for genuinely creative philosophical work.” It depressed me to read that, as if a draft of nihilism had wafted by: life felt picayune suddenly, mechanical, scholarly—training people to think!—and denying philosophy even as they preach it! Well-oiled parts of the machine, functioning smoothly, cooperating with contemporary ways of doing things. What philosopher has ever cooperated? Philosophy is rebellion, war with authority in every form; it is a way of life, not ‘tidy thinking’ or scholarship or a specialty. Spartacus was a philosopher; Daniel Dennett is not.
The verbose perverseness that passes for philosophy now signifies a perversion of the human spirit, a discursifying of it, a domesticating institutionalizing of it, perversely appropriate to a society that has “repressively desublimated” all that is profound and creative in life. The late-capitalist categorical imperative of culture is to trivialize at all costs and for all profits, to privatize, atomize, marketize, professionalize, impersonalize, and stupidize, all in order to replicate and accumulate, to replicate and accumulate institutions and a New Man, homo bureaucraticus. Or, ultimately, homo economicus. Certainly philosophy, of all things, cannot flourish in such an environment, nor can anything else that demands to be free and unconstrained by institutional limits. The existentialist cry of the mid-twentieth century—followed by the barbaric yawp of the Sixties’ youth movements, preceded by the anti-capitalist vibrancy of labor movements in their heyday and earlier Romantic culture for the modernity-ambivalent elite and saturnalian revelry for the untamed multitude—has died, or faded from cultural prominence, but its echo cannot die until humankind itself does. The cycle continues, and we’re about to see another of its revolutions…
Modernity vs. humanity.— Herbert Gutman’s “Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815–1919” (1973) reminds us of what a rich world we lost with the standardization and atomization of society. Such diversity and humanness, artisanal craftsmanship and pride, free-wheeling festivals of life outside the factory. Actually, already in the mid-nineteenth century the dehumanization was apparent, according to Mike Walsh in the 1840s: “A ‘gloomy, churlish, money-worshipping spirit’ had ‘swept nearly all the poetry out of the poor man’s sphere,’ said the editor-politician. ‘Ballad-singing, street dancing, tumbling, public games, all are either prohibited or discountenanced, so that Fourth of July and election sports alone remain.’” Local and national power-structures pressing the masses into dull rectangular shapes. The nascent nation-state suppressing local variety, spontaneity being dangerous to centralized power.
Homo ludens vs. homo institutorum.— The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott said it simply—one of those simple but profound truths worth remembering: “It is creative apperception more than anything that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.” Creativity is not uniquely human, but humans are uniquely creative. We have a need to create, and to love, and to inquire—to express ourselves and see ourselves reflected in the world. We have the urge to play, an urge innate in our biological nature. “Creative impulses are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence.” The child plays with his toys and his playmates, exploring his new world in the realm of fantasy, like the poet and the artist. The musician plays music, as the athlete plays a sport. In theater, one watches a play. The scientist and the philosopher play with ideas, perhaps in great seriousness but with those elements of fun, creativity, “tension,” and voluntary submission to implicit rules that Johan Huizinga invokes in Homo Ludens (1938) to define play. Social life is essentially playful, very clearly so as regards flirting and dating, in which the tension of play takes the form of sexual tension. And when things get more intimate the partners engage in sexual foreplay—and intercourse itself can be delightfully playful. The ubiquity of games in human societies, from simple hide-and-seek to chess and complex card games, in addition to the thrill of friendly competition in indefinitely many forms (athletic, intellectual, artistic, etc.), shows how the agonistic spirit suffuses the human mind. The spirit of play, in short, is the spirit of freedom, “superfluity,” joyful self-expression, and immersive engagement with the world.
At the other end of the spectrum are modern institutions. Humans, it turns out, are capable not only of play but also of dull and dead seriousness. We have the capacity to obey authority, and to imbibe its individuality-denying, repressively collectivistic norms. We join institutions or are subject to them, to the impersonal rules that dictate how we are to act and think, and without even noticing it we participate in the near-extirpation of our individuality (at least in the institutional context). The self-effacing, amoral, mechanical mentality of the typical bureaucrat is the obvious example, which, as Hannah Arendt observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), can lead straight into complicity in monstrous crimes. But more benign manifestations exist. Theodor Adorno already remarked in the 1940s that “even the so-called intellectual professions are being deprived, through their growing resemblance to business, of all joy. Atomization is advancing not only between men, but within each individual, between the spheres of his life.” In leisure time one might still “play” and be creative, though mass-produced culture was sapping even leisurely pursuits of their authentically creative and spontaneous element; but in the context of the “job,” the rote conformism of seriousness had crowded out freedom and self-expression. Ultimately corporate capitalism itself, with its hideous architecture of concrete hierarchies to control society and amass profit, was and is responsible for such pernicious tendencies—for the bureaucratic collectivism that requires but a nudge to become fascist totalitarianism, and for the detaching of hapless functionaries from the consequences of their actions so that professionals and bureaucrats and intellectuals can all become little Eichmanns engineering distant horrors, and for the kitschifying of culture that brings totalitarianism into the sphere of play, and for the routinizing and vulgarizing of creativity that empties life of its meaning. The two principles are at opposite poles: creative play, and capitalist-institutional atomization.
It is the tragedy of modern man that “two souls, alas, dwell within my breast.” We seek self-affirming self-expression—authentic engagement with others—even as we let ourselves be regimented by authority. The path to reclaim play, i.e., our very humanity, is the path to reclaim democracy, human dignity, and social justice: tear down the walls that divide us from ourselves and others. Bring back the “ballad-singing, street dancing, tumbling, [and] public games,” and scandalize the bosses with your flouting of their rules. Resurrect the public.
On the Holocaust.— Even seventy years later, having learned nothing, Western intellectuals still love to proclaim with the ponderous air of authority that the Holocaust was “thoroughly at odds with the great traditions of Western civilization,” as Richard Rubenstein paraphrases in his book The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future (1975). It was contrary to all our glorious Western values of freedom, truth, beauty, rationality, and other pretty words that intellectuals pretend to admire. Let’s leave aside the fact that “the West” has never had a monopoly on such values: they’re not Western values but human values, which people from prehistory onwards have implicitly subscribed to and acted on. More pertinent is the fact that for centuries the West has been more committed to quite different values, such as insatiable greed, plunder and enslavement of foreign peoples, genocide of native populations, vicious exploitation of wage-laborers, murderous hatred of the “Other,” ever-increasing policing of society (in both “soft” and “hard” forms), and atomizing bureaucratic collectivism that dehumanizes everything it touches. None of this has been because Westerners are uniquely evil or have a different human nature from other peoples; it has been because a new kind of society arose, structured around the institutional imperative to accumulate capital at whatever cost to the natural and human worlds. At the same time as horrific tendencies of racism and nationalism gradually developed under the influence of an 'inter-nationally' organized imperialistic capitalism, trends of depersonalization, regimentation, authoritarian control and monitoring of populations, and manufacturing authority-friendly popular attitudes through propaganda grew more pronounced. The relatively “personalistic” slavery of the antebellum American South gave way to the impersonal industrial slavery of the South in the 1890s and later. The violent and tumultuous conquest of society by profit-driven market relations, not humanizing but atomizing and instrumentalizing, spread reifying habits of thought that reduced humans to numbers, calculations, agglomerations, categories, ideologies, foreign objects to be used and discarded. Ever-larger concentrations of capital and industry made possible and necessary ever-larger bureaucracies, with their diabolical Weberian “formal rationality” and “efficiency”—exquisite subordination of every human impulse to the order from on high, the administrative rule, the technique for the smooth functioning of power. Corporate capital and national governments matured together, intertwining in their policy formation and administrative machinery, the interests of one often becoming the interests of the other, each requiring for the sake of its power that social dissent be regulated or eradicated and domestic capital continue accumulating. In an over-competitive capitalist world, the obsession of big business with big profits led to nationalistic protectionism, tariff wars, conquest of colonial markets, the “scramble for Africa,” an international arms race that exalted “blood and iron” as supreme values, and ideologies of national and racial grandeur to justify all this imperialism. A brutalization of the human spirit proceeded apace, particularly as savage colonial wars and amoral colonial administration trained bureaucrats in the efficient use of pure violence to attain the ends of power. World War I brought imperialist brutality home to Europe, intensifying it exponentially in the process. Afterwards, millions of shattered, defeated, resentful, homeless men roamed the continent, seething with rage against this society that had forgotten them, directing their rage at scapegoats readymade by the ruling class’s ongoing demonization of them: Socialists, Communists, Jews, foreign peoples, effete intellectuals—anything and anyone whose targeting would distract from class structures. Again capitalism plunged into crisis: the Great Depression happened, which raised fears among ruling classes that organized labor or even Communists would attain political power. To prevent this, in a political environment of gridlock and dysfunction, conservatives and big business turned in desperation to the fascist movements that had spread in the 1920s, which they thought they could control. They installed Hitler, and elsewhere in Europe fascist parties made significant headway. Under Hitler, finally, all the nefarious tendencies of Western civilization that had been building for decades and centuries were unleashed in a danse macabre that culminated in the most unfathomable enormity in history, the Holocaust. The racism, the institutional and ideological “categorizing” of people, the enslavement and genocide of the Other, the efficient doing-away-with superfluous people (the Jews were made stateless so that no government had to protect them), the impersonal cost-benefit mode of thinking, and the totalitarian aspects of bureaucracy, states, corporations, capitalism itself, were all perfected—the principle of submission to authority was deified. It should be noted that Nazism and the Holocaust were singularly compatible with corporate capitalism: big business all over the West cooperated with and funded the Nazis (at least until that became politically inexpedient in Allied countries during World War II), who performed a useful service in destroying the German labor movement; and Jewish slave labor was gratefully used by politically connected companies. Nor is there any inherent reason why business should object to genocide, which, in fact, can be profitable for firms lucky enough to get the contracts.* Clear elective affinities exist between the anti-humanism of capitalism—everything subordinated to the mania for profit, workers ideally being pushed down to a starvation diet for the sake of profits (or, even better, being eliminated entirely through mechanization and automation)—and the anti-humanism of Nazism, which subordinates everything to the mania for power. The superfluity of humanity to capitalism was made literally manifest in the superfluity of individuality, personality, and millions of physical beings to state-capitalist totalitarianism—such that the death-factories can perhaps be considered an apt symbol of modernity itself. –In short, far from being a betrayal of Western values, the Holocaust was the apotheosis of some of the most deep-seated, albeit implicit, Western values and social structures. Even if it hadn’t happened, the catastrophe it signified would have anyway, namely the elimination of human connections in mass society and in the dominant institutions of modern civilization. This plague of multifarious inhumanity has by no means been overcome since World War II; it has only assumed different forms in an age in which explicit racism and virulent nationalism have—at least until recently—gone out of style.
*As Rubenstein argues, “both genocide and slave labor proved to be highly profitable enterprises… The business of mass murder was both a highly complex and successful corporate venture,” as it has always been during the imperialistic age from the 1870s to the recent Iraq war. After all, “the same attitude of impersonal rationality is required to run successfully a large corporation, a death camp slave factory and an extermination center. All three are part of the same world.” The Cunning of History (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 60, 62. The thoroughly capitalist nature of the Nazi regime is made clear in Ernest Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War (London: Verso, 1986).
To see the Holocaust in a grain of sand.— While the industrialized murder of six million people is in a category all its own, one can observe in daily life many of the tendencies that make it possible. The thinking that sees the machinery of death as solely a thing of the past, an incomprehensible anomaly that we have decisively overcome in our more enlightened age, is deeply embedded in us but, as the “enormous condescension of posterity” always is, deeply wrong. One needn’t invoke the obvious monstrosities to show how a semi-Holocaustic spirit, a spirit of distanced disregard for all human and natural considerations (including the very survival of the species), still suffuses our society. One needn’t, for instance, point to the U.S.’s bureaucratically administered near-annihilation of Vietnam for the sake of preventing a national liberation movement from starting a “domino effect.” One needn’t mention the U.S.’s provision of arms to Indonesia between the 1970s and 1990s with which to slaughter hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, nor the Reagan administration’s torture of Central America to “shock and awe” the population into acceptance of reactionary governments and domination by U.S. business. One needn’t invoke the Clinton administration’s murder of maybe half a million Iraqi children by means of economic sanctions, nor the second Bush administration’s destruction of Iraq to get control of the country’s oil and benefit politically connected companies like Halliburton, nor, in general, any of the thousands of heinous Western political crimes documented in books by Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Edward Said, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, left-wing historians like Gabriel Kolko and Walter LaFeber, and too many other critical voices to list. It’s not even necessary to mention the most recent abominations of drone warfare—murder by video-game—or killing of particular people (including American citizens) by executive fiat, or indefinite detention without trial, or construction of a surveillance state that dwarfs anything even dreamed of by Hitler or Stalin. All this is in direct continuity with traditions that eventuated in the Holocaust, but to discuss these obscenities is superfluous. It makes it too easy for me to make my case.
No, I see the machinery of death—can’t help seeing it—in the very words spoken by low-level bureaucrats, in gestures of contempt by police officers (quite apart from rampant police brutality), in someone’s command to “Get away, this is private property!,” in a corporation’s laying off a thousand workers for the sake of the bottom line, in pop culture’s erasure of individuality, in academia’s enforcement of “politically neutral” scholarly norms, and in the very anonymous structure of capitalist mass society. When an airport security guard callously rifles through someone’s luggage or behaves in an intentionally brutish way—indeed, when an airport employee simply commands you, in the I-will-not-be-contradicted tone of authority, to step back behind the line because it’s not your turn yet—the kernel of moral horror and human degeneration is evident. When an employee says, “I’m sorry, it’s the rules; I didn’t make them, I just follow them,” he has already placed one foot on the path to Nazism. All it takes now is the right circumstances and a succession of nudges for him to become a gas-chamber attendant or an SS officer. For he has forsaken rationality, independence, freedom, sympathy for others, and absolved himself of responsibility and the need to have a conscience. Because of its rarity, few things impress me more than when someone “doing his job” momentarily disregards the rules and makes an exception for you out of his sympathy. “The fee is twenty dollars,” he says, “but forget it, I’ll waive that.” A glimmer of humanity! “Maybe there’s hope for the species after all,” I then think. But I’m quickly disabused of that delusion when I reflect on the absence of rationality and compassion in social relations themselves, a fact that pressures us all to act in socially irrational and impersonally cruel ways.
Even the most seemingly innocent and ubiquitous actions can have the seed of anti-personal amorality—lack of identification with others, or groupthink and mindless conformism, contempt for people who are “different” or don’t follow the common norms—that bears fruit in Nazism and genocide. He who ignores a homeless person on the street has the stain of moral corruption in him, however he rationalizes his behavior. (So much the worse for humanity that we all do that, from time to time.) He who automatically recoils from a working-class black or Hispanic or white man approaching him in the subway with a friendly air, just to talk, must be profoundly alienated from his fellow human beings, a stranger to them, unconcerned with the majority of them, in fact slightly disgusted by those who show a little independence vis-à-vis conventional styles of dress and behavior. Their fates, their lives and hardships, leave him cold; he simply doesn’t care. This is usually true, indeed, even with respect to strangers who belong to one’s own social stratum: since they’re strangers, what happens to them is not a matter of concern.
“Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent,” George Steiner said.* Are you indifferent to the suffering of another person, whether in the neighboring house or on the other side of the world? Then, in a sense, you’re an accomplice to it. You let it happen—or you may even indirectly participate in it, say by paying taxes to a militaristic government. After World War II people reproached themselves and were reproached for their silence as the Holocaust was happening, their having done nothing to make it stop. Well, why is that question not asked now? The world is in as much agony as ever, and most people are as silent as ever. Nothing has changed. Even now, as in the 1940s, people are being systematically murdered, tortured, enslaved, made superfluous by the hundreds of millions (being herded into gargantuan slums where they merely subsist animal-like, or, in the U.S., being imprisoned en masse for having black skin and not having a vital economic role in society). The point isn’t only that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”; it is that modern, impersonal evil largely consists of people doing seemingly nothing—following rules, showing indifference, ignoring the plea for help. That way lies barbarism.
Of course there are other manifestations of the barbarity. It isn’t only because of individual stupidity that millions of Americans deny global warming, detest homosexuals, revile “liberals,” and nurse secret race-hatred. It isn’t only, or even mainly, an individual’s genes that make possible the phenomenon of the latently fascist “authoritarian personality.”** There are far more diabolical social forces at work. Such stupid and prejudiced attitudes, which by their nature cannot be based on dispassionate reasoning about facts or impartial openness to experiences, to new people and new ideas—such attitudes well up out of the impersonal, defensive, diffusely resentful, beset-from-all-sides mode of experience that has disfigured so many millions of minds since mass society made the individual superfluous. Without self-validation, one becomes a moral and intellectual homunculus. To some extent we moderns are all les étrangers, but evidently some feel more so than others—often from their greater material grievances—and embrace in their alienation emotional notions of belongingness versus otherness, Us versus Them. Contempt and hatred for the outsider, comforting submission to the authority of the insider. The question is, who will get to these alienated masses first, the left or the right? As it turns out, the right has far more resources than the left, since the right is precisely big business, and so the winners in the race are usually the forces that blame all woes on everything except the one thing that matters, class. And so instead of a more productive semi-submission to left-wing authority—(for, after all, there is an authoritarianism of the “left,” an undemocratic institutional and personality structure, deplorably common among leftist political parties and fringe groups)—what you get is a counterproductive submission to fascist authority. And thus a pullulating of radically illogical thinking, which, combined with mass anonymity and impersonality, gets you—the Holocaust. Or, more recently, enthusiastic marching into global environmental destruction, the goose-stepping elite leading its goose-stepping followers straight off the cliff.
The market mode of behavior is therefore, humanistically speaking, the twin of the authoritarian, or rather totalitarian, mode of behavior. Corporations, of course, are totalitarian entities (hierarchies that rent employees, suppress dissent, enforce a common ideology, etc.), and capitalism is just fragmented totalitarianism, profit-making machines competing against each other and trying to destroy each other. An unfortunate externality of which is the destruction of life and nature. So, in addition to plowing full steam ahead to end millions of species and hundreds of millions of human lives, companies have now accomplished the grotesquerie of profiting by means of this very apocalypse. Capitalism can make money from its own self-immolation! For example, companies are buying water rights and farmland because “drought and food shortages can mean big profit”; the greater frequency of natural disasters means insurers can raise rates; and melting ice in the Arctic exposes oil reserves for BP and Shell to exploit.*** Just as a brave new world of species-holocaust lies ahead, so new frontiers of profit thus tantalize our intrepid corporate world-conquerors. Vive capitalism and its commodification of all!
–The point, however, is that the potential for humanity’s self-extinction by means of Weberian formal rationality—methodical calculation, quantitative reasoning, mechanical adoption of the proper means to an end—is implicit not only in the operation of any bureaucracy but also in the simplest market transaction. For each side seeks personal profit of some sort in disregard of “externalities” and non-market values. Someone with an idealist turn of mind could even interpret the modern world, in Hegelian fashion, as a progressive, dialectical unfolding of all the human and anti-human dimensions latent in the logic of the market transaction, revealed as the all-devouring market economy has colonized the world. All the modern reduction of people and nature to commodities, and the mass movements of workers’ resistance, and the extermination of whole peoples, and the despairing cultural reactions against market-driven alienation, and the subordination of society and politics to the power of money—a left-wing Hegel would say it’s all there, in potentiality, in the mere act of selling a product to a customer for a profit. –Cosmic evil can be present in a grain of sand.
*George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1976), 150.
**Theodor Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1950). The spread of contemporary semi-fascist movements and parties has revived interest in this concept, and recent work largely validates Adorno and his colleagues’ conclusions. See, for example, William F. Stone, Gerda Lederer, and Richard Christie, eds., Strength and Weakness: The Authoritarian Personality Today (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1993).
***Julia Greenberg, “6 Industries That Will Profit From Global Warming,” Wired, February 27, 2014; Matthew Campbell and Chris V. Nicholson, “Investors Seek Ways to Profit From Global Warming,” Business Week, March 7, 2013.
Collectivism.— Collectivism comes in both noble and evil forms. In the former, the principle of the individual is paramount; in the latter, the principle of the mass. The one means the rule of mutual self-actualization, self-respect, sympathy for others, democracy, human diversity—“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” to quote Karl Marx. It is, in short, authentic community and sociality, healthy equality, a state of society in which, to quote Hegel, individuals recognize the self in the other and the other in the self, humans as human, rational beings as rational—freedom and dignity personified, one’s desire for the other’s recognition calling forth one’s own powers and potentialities. Perhaps never fully realized on a large scale, this anarchist ideal of free and dignified (though not conflictless) community can at least be approximated—as it is, for example, in many grassroots-democratic activist groups, not to mention families, friendships, and relationships between lovers—and must so be in order for the social animal called homo sapiens to really belong to himself and be at home in the world.*
On the other hand is the all-too-common kind of large-scale collectivism, the reducing-to-the-common-denominator kind. This is often present to some degree—along with the “good” kind of collectivism, existing in tension with it—even when a small group of people, be they friends or acquaintances or strangers, interact socially. One is pressured, almost imperceptibly, to conform to the ideas and norms that emerge from the group’s behavior, the senses of humor, the opinions that command the most assent, the reactions to particular charismatic or uncharismatic people in the group. Even on this innocuous level of everyday sociality, the group spontaneously develops something like a collective consciousness that molds and guides one’s own consciousness along the path of uniformity. All participants must recreate in the common space that has been cleared, drawing from the common touchstones, the tropes, social techniques, group interests—sports, television, movies, popular music. Defying the accepted norms, however slightly, gets one ostracized—frequently by being ignored, an effective method.
Collectivistic coercion takes more pernicious forms, however, in institutions and institutionally determined mass thinking and action. Here is where the real crimes against all that is good in life take place. Examples have already been given; let us only quote a few thoughts from the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who fathomed the depths of modernity’s extreme collectivism:
Our lives and habits, our behavior and manners, even our thoughts and feelings are pressed into a uniform mould and fashioned into sameness. The spirit of authority, law, written and unwritten, tradition and custom force us into a common groove and make a man a will-less automaton without independence or individuality… The authority of the past and present dictates not only our behavior but dominates our very minds and souls, and is continually at work to stifle every symptom of nonconformity, of independent attitude and unorthodox opinion. The whole weight of social condemnation comes down upon the head of the man or woman who dares defy conventional codes… In science and art, in literature, poetry, and in painting this spirit compels adaptation and adjustment, resulting in imitation of the established and approved, in uniformity and sameness, in stereotyped expression.
While tendencies of repressive collectivism exist in all social life, outside institutional contexts they are not truly repressive, per se. It is only with stultifying institutional authority, market relations, policing and soldiering, and the professionalizing of the mind that one gets…the mass holocaust of individuality. Personally, having spent much time in academia, I am most familiar with intellectuals’ collectivism, and so will focus on it here.
I must confess to an emotional disgust with the “stereotyped expression,” the cowardly uniformity of the intellectual world in all its crannies, from the mainstream media to the cobwebbed corners of academe. It’s hard for me to be objective about something with which I am so intimately familiar. It’s gotten to the point that the very idea of being published in a scholarly journal or by a traditional publisher makes me uncomfortable, because it associates me with the Machine. To submit to being “polished” like a pretty pebble in the tumbler of bureaucratic culture seems to me a violation. The benefit to it, of course, is that it’s the only way to be taken seriously—although if you dissent too much from favored dogmas, even having the imprimatur of a respected institution or publisher won’t be enough to earn you the good will of most intellectuals.
The basic point is simple and obvious: institutions select for obedience and conformity, such that if you act independently you will almost certainly be kicked out or ostracized. If you’re slavish, you will meet with greater success. The essence of any large institution is thus collectivism, submersion in the mass and subordination to impersonal rules. Contemporary conservatives who decry “socialist collectivism” (amusingly accusing Obama and other such center-right politicians of it) are unaware that the institutions and behavior they adore, namely corporations, market-determined behavior, and acknowledgement of other people only as instantiating the types “employee,” “manager,” “executive,” etc., are the most collectivistic of all. In the truest sense of individualism, it’s impossible to imagine a more anti-individualistic structure than the market or its corporate apotheosis, in which people’s individuality is (ideally) erased. Because of this erasure, though, these institutions do exemplify a perverted individualism, in the same way that bureaucracy and totalitarianism do: all that exist are atoms, windowless monads of suppressed humanity.
Being farther from the operations of power, academia is less pathologically fragmented and collectivistic than the market economy or the corporate world. The difference is fairly marginal, though, given that every facet of academic culture embodies fragmentation and collectivism. Scholarship is intensely specialized, people spending entire careers studying subtopics of a subtopic; the fetish of “expertise” reinforces the notion that all that matters is familiarity with a specialized and conventional scholarly literature; careerist imperatives overwhelm any interest in truth, realistic understanding, or genuine originality (at least in the humanities and social sciences). Economics, for example, is a particularly egregious case, because its main functions are to mystify and to provide ideological idealizations of capitalist behavior. Already in the 1980s, economists were complaining that
Economics has…become so broad and so complicated that, within the fields, one group of specialists barely speaks the same language as the Ph.D.s across the hall. And so much of what is published seems more to proselytize for an ideology than to make sense of the chaotic world… It’s no wonder that a single economic development can be interpreted as a godsend or a disaster, depending on the interpreter’s frame of reference.
Even in more serious disciplines than economics, though, the worship of ideology—i.e., collectivism—over intellectual integrity is so obvious that only the blindly indoctrinated could fail to see it. In history departments, for instance, the “fashionable theory of economic nondeterminism” of politics and society about which Gabriel Kolko complained in the 1960s, and which has reigned since at least the 1950s, now takes postmodern forms of obsession with gender, sexuality, and “discourse.” As a result, the incredibly important work of Kolko and likeminded New Left historians, like that of other materialist scholars such as the political scientist Thomas Ferguson, is almost never mentioned among academics. Indeed, it is unmentionable, because of its subversive implications and its implicit critique of postmodernist idealism. A radical like Kolko is not “one of us,” he is not mainstream enough, and so is to be ignored. The fact that his work explains the sources of American foreign and domestic policy is irrelevant; what matters is that other academics don’t mention him, so it would be impolitic to do so oneself.
We tend to forget that intellectual artifacts are not simply produced by individuals pursuing their own idiosyncratic interests; they are, in most cases, expressions of institutional priorities and configurations. They are collective products, testaments to institutional agendas, power-relations, and the kinds of work that can make it through academic, media, and publishing filters—which of course tend to filter out anything that is challenging to their own power and interests. In forgetting this institutional context and background, we forget that there are overwhelming pressures for only innocuous and conventional work to be rewarded, and for critical voices to be marginalized. The vast majority of people in an elite institution will be successfully indoctrinated with its ethos and agendas, so that the interests of the institution become their own personal interests. As a result, they react with extreme emotional hostility to anyone who doesn’t follow the rules with utmost fidelity—thereby revealing the essential meanness and smugness of collectivism. All may be pleasant and polite on the surface, as long as norms are followed, but scratch this veneer and an abyss of petty hate and contempt opens up. Whether you’re a scholar booted from academia for criticizing Israel or a graduate student who incurs the wrath of professors for not submitting to hyper-specialization, the “herd of independent minds” will brook no dissent.
The rule of collectivism also produces a ubiquitous stupidity. I’ll have more to say later about the subject of stupidity in America; for now, I’ll confine myself to the observation that narrow institutional points of view are almost never sensible, self-critical, or grounded in reason and realism. They are dogmatic and stupid, based on myths about the importance and value of the institution in question (and therefore the people who identify with it). So, to the extent that someone identifies with an institution—as most professionals do—he will exhibit traits of dogmatism, stupidity, and self-overestimation. For example, journalists are trained to think that their profession, in its present reality, is both “objective” or “neutral” between opposing points of view and inherently adversarial towards power, two ideas that are obviously false (and mutually inconsistent); politicians are generally convinced of the nobility of their motives and their relative innocence regarding social problems or state crimes; most academics believe the self-glorifying myth that ideas and philosophies, rather than institutional dynamics, are what move the world. And nearly all professionals are basically ignorant of the functions they really serve in the political economy, their complicity in the evils of the world, and the by-no-means-flattering reasons they have been able to rise in their professions (namely because of their obedience, lack of intellectual curiosity, and willingness not to challenge norms). They often even deny such truisms as that society has a ruling class and that the wealthy have wildly disproportionate control over politics, the media, and mainstream ideologies. In other words, naïve self-deceptions are ubiquitous among the institutional automatons who constitute the “elite.”
In addition to an underlying meanness, smugness, and stupidity, intellectual collectivism breeds a remarkable pretentiousness. Whether it’s a philosopher poring over a sentence by Nietzsche, a literary or film critic writing a turgid essay on some little facet of a poem or a movie, a poet laboring for hours and days to come up with the most dense and paradoxical imagery possible, or a postmodernist disguising a trivial idea in jargonistic, pleonastic prose, intellectuals excel in pretense. Academic conferences can be unbearably pretentious, full of stuffy people taking themselves seriously to a comical degree—priding themselves on their vocabulary, their articulateness, their specialized knowledge—subject to the delusion, apparently, that what they’re talking about has some sort of significance (which it rarely does).** The endless “calls for papers!” to submit to yet another conference remind one of how insular and therefore feckless the intellectual world is. But because academia takes itself very seriously, it encourages self-serious behavior in the people who submit to it. “Pretentiousness,” in fact, often just means “institutionally sanctioned behavior.” Since institutions are artificial and anti-human, the behavior appropriate to them strikes us as artificial, even ludicrous (or, sometimes, downright evil, as in the case of the corporate sector).
Incidentally, it isn’t only academics. Far from it. One turns on the television, flips to CNN, and sees Serious People discussing issues of high moment, such as whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero, or what to think of the president’s latest rhetorical performance. “Panels” provide “expert” “commentary” on “both sides” of an issue. It is all intensely serious and important, and one is overawed by the intellectual fireworks on display.
The ubiquity of such pretentiousness in elite culture serves an important function: it signifies that authority is being taken seriously. That’s generally what elite pretentiousness is, just a taking-seriously of authority, a refusal to acknowledge how absurd and risible are the performative dimensions of authority. The rules about what can be said and what can’t be said, and how to say what can be said, protect the supposed legitimacy of authority, which is to say authoritarian collectivism (for that’s what authority means: a collective submission to power). If you’re forbidden from “questioning the motives” of your fellow politicians, or from asking a scholar “Who cares?” about the (usually uninteresting) thesis of some little article he has published, or, in general, from saying “Come on, let’s be real and admit what we all know but are pretending to deny!,” then institutions can function smoothly and authority can operate without a hitch. That’s the categorical imperative that explains much of what is ludicrous and awful about the world.
For all these reasons, I take a different perspective from most people regarding who it is I respect and who I don’t. I’m inclined to respect someone who’s lower on the totem-pole, because he still may have an independent mind (and also is typically not such an asshole as his superiors are); the successful and admired, on the other hand, I usually consider rather contemptible. Ceteris paribus, someone who’s a “top scholar” has already lost most of my respect (unless he or she proves me wrong). Few things are sadder than an institutionalized mind.
Certainly there are overwhelming pressures to submit; but one should at least try not to mentally submit too. A little nonconformism is a good thing.
*See Alexander Berkman’s thoughts on equality in ABC of Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1977/1929), 25: “‘But will not life under anarchy, in economic and social equality, mean general levelling?’ you ask. No, my dear friend, quite the contrary. Because equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity… Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity… Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality. Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse, and only the repression of this free diversity results in levelling, in uniformity and sameness.”
**The one question that doesn’t exist in their otherwise amply stocked arsenal of interrogatives is the most important one: “Why does this matter?”
Social Luddism, a necessity.— No one has ever said it better than Mario Savio in 1964, in the context of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Just as we have a duty to remember and reflect on every great horror of history, so, in a different sense, do we have a duty to remember and reflect on words like these, spoken in a moment of high disgust with the bourgeois world: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” This is the immortal message of anarchism—man’s primordial and instinctual cry for freedom. And it is the passion that has birthed a better world from time immemorial, and will continue to do so until the human species is extinguished. Authority vs. freedom and rationality: that is the underlying “dialectic” of history.
I dance, therefore I am.— A piece that’s good for restoring the love of living after you’ve been corrupted by contact with authority is Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture. It’s joy in fun and fun in joy. Enjoy! :-)
The secular divine.— My God: Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. I discovered that piece earlier this year . I thought it was a little strange at first, unstructured and meandering, but…you know, it’s quintessential Beethoven, the affirmation of everything in spite of everything, the redemption of the universe. I often get tears in my eyes when watching great music performed by…people, people who have devoted their lives to art and you can see it when they’re singing, the hours and years of practice and passion as they belt out their notes, their devotion to music. That beautiful soprano with the blond hair coiffed perfectly and the makeup and earrings on—the most beautiful thing about her is that she’s a woman, just a normal person who wants to look pretty like all women and has a family and sees her friends every day and has to do maintenance on her house every year—and yet here she is standing between an orchestra and a chorus, belting out Beethoven, singing—humans can sing! (how superfluous!)—singing about how “graceful, charming and sweet is the sound of life’s harmonies!” The three men and the three women singing about God’s grace being bestowed on humanity when love and strength are united, and peace and joy advancing in perfect concord, and then the chorus trumpeting that we must “accept the gifts of high art!,” and the orchestra and piano and the conductor swinging his arms wildly singing along with the chorus (you can only see his lips moving but you know he’s shouting as loud as the singers)—can you picture these men and women sitting and standing beside each other in front of a rapt audience, not fighting or arguing or talking of money or politics or responsibilities but singing about art? It’s a miracle, the great miracle of life.
A community, timeless and universal because they’re performing music scribbled two hundred years ago by a deaf man who lived alone in his cluttered and filthy apartment—scratched-in ideas transported from one man’s head to a concert hall where worshipers pay homage to the thing most worth paying homage to, art. It’ll all be over soon (two hours), but its very transience enhances its beauty.
The clean air of the Baroque.— Notwithstanding the uniquely life-affirming character of Beethoven’s music, Bach has pieces that are more invigorating than anything except, perhaps, standing atop some Himalayan peak a breath away from the heavens. (The difference is that the air of Bach, unlike that of the Himalayas, has a superabundance of oxygen.) –To momentarily escape from the polluted atmosphere of modern culture into the “luminiferous ether” of the Baroque and Classical periods, which transmits light straight into one’s money-stained soul—Bach’s translucent Partita No. 5 for keyboard, Handel’s limpid Water Music, Vivaldi’s sun-drenched Four Seasons—restores youth and life. It’s actually possible to breathe in this air of freedom from commodification!
Antitheses.— For the last couple of hours I watched videos on YouTube of William Buckley, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and such characters. It was almost an unreal experience. These people and evidently their circles were/are not ordinary, in the worst possible way. I was watching degenerates, narcissists, poseurs, boors, and bores. No doubt brilliant in their own diseased way. But I couldn’t help thinking I was in the electronic presence of personified decadence. Hitchens of course was the embodiment of sleaze, his whole being icky, greasy, slimy. Those are the adjectives that come immediately to mind when I look at him. The perfect emblem of this group of people, this whole literary cocktail-party subculture, would be a picture of Hitchens’ face in the midst of an attempted smile. A grotesque, false image. Pop culture meets pretentious intellectualism meets Roman homosexual orgies.
–The essence is simple: with those people, as with most pop culture, I can feel myself being lowered—to the particular (and the vulgar). With Chomsky, as with good classical music, I can feel myself being elevated—to the universal. It’s pollution vs. cleanliness. Shiny pollution vs. radiant cleanliness.
From the Greeks to the Enlightenment.— The best way to think about the human task of living is that it should be, as Nietzsche said, a continual journey of self-overcoming. The project should be that embodied in the great religions’ concepts of salvation or nirvana: to overcome particularity, to wash out the blemishes of self-fixated particularity. That is, to fuse the particular, i.e. oneself, with the universal, by remaking oneself in its light. We are born spotted, tainted with the “sin” of self-immersion, base impulses, and ignorance; our task is to become (relatively) spotless, elevated above ordinary determinations so that in freedom we master ourselves. The imperative, in short—the categorical imperative—is to be clean, and, on the whole, whatever doesn’t make you feel clean should usually be rejected as ignoble and corrupting. We all have capacities for high and low things, for things that a universal humanity would appreciate and things it would despise. Our calling is to cultivate the former capacities and let the others atrophy. –On one side is stupidity, ignorance, slavishness, unreasoned emotion, unconcern for others, greed, smugness, hedonism, and brute bodily pleasures, all things that entrap within the determined self, the unfree and “unclean” self ruled by animal impulses. On the other side is intelligence, knowledge, courage, reason, compassion, generosity, a deep humility, and “spiritual pleasures,” things that liberate from the self’s primal immediacy and so make free and dignified. Insofar as these latter qualities are grounded in internalization of “the other’s” perspective—broadening of experience and the desire to impress the other—which is a uniquely human capacity that makes possible our very self-consciousness, they are, in a sense, the fulfillment of human potential, of the universality implicit in self-consciousness. The former qualities, by contrast, are merely human manifestations of the lowest animal conditions and instincts. Stupidity, for example, is utterly immersed in itself; intelligence incorporates others.
While it may sound odd, therefore, the idea of cleanliness—moral, intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, etc.—is a useful “regulative principle” for human thought and action (to speak in Kantian language). It is evocative; it is imprecise but elevating, and recalls that other ennobling idea, the concept of universality. It shouldn’t be confused with purity, which is extreme, potentially fanatical and anti-humanistic; cleanliness is more moderate—merely moral, beautiful, rational, humane, elevated above petty resentment and neurotic fixations. One can also use the idea of cleanliness as a test to determine what is “decadent”: if some cultural artifact doesn’t seem healthy, a sign and product of good health, vigor, or lofty universality, one might well call it decadent—that is, a symptom of sickness, neurasthenic self-consciousness, polluted and anti-human life, pathological social atomization, or psychological and cultural exhaustion. Most twentieth-century avant-garde art is decidedly decadent (which doesn’t mean it’s worthless). Even late-nineteenth-century composers, such as Brahms and Wagner, can be very decadent, unlike Mozart and Haydn. The social context of the former was, so to speak, dirty and sick (hypochondriacal, navel-gazing)—as you can sometimes hear in its music—that of the latter relatively clean and vital, naïvely confident.
The ideals of cleanliness and universality overlap with, but are superior to, Nietzsche’s ideals of strength, enthusiasm, “overflowing vitality,” instinct, virtù in the Renaissance sense. There is some intuitive plausibility to Nietzsche’s judging the worth of things by determining where to place them on the spectrum from shriveled weakness to brimming-over strength. This standard of value is reminiscent of past “aesthetic moralities” that center not on the antithesis right/wrong or good/evil but on noble/base: Aristotle’s ethic of virtue is an example, as is, perhaps, Goethe’s (unoriginal) conception of the “genius” whose demonic vitality is such that he isn’t bound by ordinary standards of right and wrong.* One problem with such an emphasis on “strength,” of course, is that it subordinates the claims of altruism to those of egoism. The weak but good man is considered lower than the strong but amoral man. Another problem is the vagueness of words like “strong” and “weak”: their meanings are elusive, tending to evaporate the more closely you examine them. Moreover, insofar as the terms are meaningful at all, someone can be psychologically strong and weak in different respects—indeed, everyone is both strong and weak (whatever that means). A third problem, perhaps most damning, is that the Nietzschean—or Calliclean—value-system is the parochial ethic of the master class, which has the requisite leisure and privilege to care about individualistic values of “virtù” and whatnot. To people preoccupied with the tasks of survival, all this master-moralizing seems juvenile, parasitic, self-indulgent, a mere luxury. It’s unreal. What makes more sense is to try to be morally and intellectually clean—compassionate, cooperative, communally oriented, not self-fixated but attuned to the health of the collective, which is also the health of the self. One attains a kind of universality—and “strength”—simply by working together with others, molding and being molded by them, internalizing their perspectives, thus achieving intelligence, knowledge, courage, reason, and the other noble values that thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche have upheld (in different ways and for different reasons). The egoistic ideal of strength or “health” is therefore best achieved precisely through altruism, which can also be a symptom of it.**
*Goethe’s example is Napoleon. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is initially seduced by this ethic, until through suffering he rises to the higher Christian morality. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Nietzschean and Goethean standards of value were already recognized, and rejected, by Plato, whose character Callicles espoused them in The Gorgias.
**See Max Scheler’s discussion of St. Francis in Ressentiment (1912).
In defense of Socrates.— Nietzsche ridiculed the Socratic equation “reason = virtue = happiness,” calling it “weird” and decadent, but in fact one can consider Nietzsche’s ridicule itself to be weird and decadent. It is of a piece with his inability to see the value of the altruistic Christian morality, the psychological profundity of which should be obvious. Happiness is based on high self-esteem, which requires that you see your implicit self-love confirmed in the world, reflected in people’s behavior towards you, validated by yourself and others. Ordinarily, acting virtuously will get you not only self-respect but also the respect and affection of others—which will itself increase your self-respect, and so your happiness. In those cases in which doing the right thing gets you ostracized or punished, you will still at least have the happiness of knowing your own value, and your superiority to the contemptible herd. Conversely, it is well known that dissolute living or obsessive chasing after fame and money does not equal stable happiness, because it does not entail a secure sense of self. So, inasmuch as it is reasonable to do what makes you happy, it is reasonable to do what is right and virtuous. Moreover, the pleasures of reason—science, philosophy, inquiry and creativity—can be definitely happiness-inducing, even if at times an obsessive engagement with philosophy or science can be tormenting. Doubtless there is some truth to the cliché that ignorance is bliss; for example, ignorantly believing in God—the idea of which reason rejects—can make people happy, and understanding the “meaninglessness” of human existence isn’t necessarily a happy experience. It can drive to despair. In fact, however, it is never just a thought (like the thought of God’s nonexistence) that makes someone unhappy; it is a thought conceived in certain circumstances, for example conditions of social alienation or loneliness or lack of interest in life. It isn’t reason or knowledge that makes unhappy, as so many poets and others have thought; it is a particular set of experiences, which cause you to latch onto some given thought and obsess over it, imagining that it is the source of your unhappiness. In a healthy social environment, it’s perfectly possible not to be disturbed by some truth that a person in a different social context might find disturbing. –In any case, it’s a risky strategy to pin your happiness on a lie, like the lie that God exists, because doubt is apt to seep in and upset your carefully arranged house of illusions.
In short, the Socratic equation is not only morally uplifting but psychologically valid, all things considered. One can object to it on the grounds that it optimistically oversimplifies, given that virtuous people are not necessarily happy—and vice versa—and “rational” people are not necessarily virtuous or happy, etc.* But on the level of ideal-types—and/or in a sanely organized society—there does seem to be an elective affinity between the three concepts of reason, morality, and happiness. Enlightenment thinkers thought so. And the Enlightenment was not a “decadent” movement; it was too naïve, confident, optimistic, and vigorous for that. What is decadent, perhaps, is a late-nineteenth-century rejection of something as universal and “clean” as the Socratic and Enlightenment association of reason, morality, and happiness—for such a (Nietzschean) rejection proceeds from a faux sophistication, a disgust with optimism, a fondness for perverse formulations, a late-romantic or fin-de-siècle fascination with the irrational and the repressed. –One should strive to be rational and moral, and relative happiness may well ensue.
*One can also object that, contrary to Kant’s philosophy, morality cannot be grounded in pure reason alone, and so in this sense morality ≠ reason. I think that this Humean and Nietzschean objection is correct, but to defend it would require a technical discussion inappropriate here.
Thoughts on morality.— The “moral sphere” has extended in recent centuries, so that now such things as slavery, colonialism, racial segregation, and discriminatory treatment of women are considered wrong. But we still have a ways to go. There are the obvious left-wing concerns: horrific treatment of animals and the environment, brutalization of homeless people, demonization of immigrants, tolerance of degrading wage-labor, etc. But aside from these issues are ones that almost nobody talks about, which can be summed up in the observation that people are frequently not nice to each other. Being unkind ought to be considered immoral, not just unpleasant. Unkindness is ubiquitous, and in a sense it’s inhuman. Indeed, any act that demonstrates an absence of empathy should be thought of as immoral. For what is morality if not respect and consideration for others?
Broadly speaking, then—but also strictly speaking—it’s immoral, say, to ignore someone (ceteris paribus), whether a homeless person on the street or someone who’s talking to you at a party or a friend who sends you an email. That is, doing so has negative implications regarding your worth as a human being. If you want to be a good person, you should always act on the basis of empathy and respect. That isn’t always possible, of course, which just means it’s impossible to be an absolutely good person, or to always abide by moral imperatives.
In fact, imperatives can conflict. Respecting human life is a duty, but one may also have a duty to kill a mass murderer if that’s the only way to prevent him from killing again. Or one may, in some extreme scenario, have a duty to lie to someone, even though lying is immoral because it shows a lack of respect and so forth. Moral values can also conflict with non-moral values—and it isn’t always right to follow the moral value in this case. For instance, it may hurt a person’s feelings to criticize an irrational belief he holds, but one’s commitment to truth and reason may justify so criticizing his belief. (It’s debatable whether commitment to truth is “moral” per se, but insofar as it doesn’t impinge on one’s treatment of others, a case can be made that it’s a non-moral value.) All this goes to show that no one, except maybe a very young child, is “innocent,” everyone is tainted, indeed in most moments we’re acting contrary to morality in some way or other (e.g., by not roaming the streets looking for suffering people to help). Still, the broader one thinks of the moral sphere as being, and the more one acts on that belief, the more one can pride oneself on being a “basically good” person.
Reason = virtue = dignity.— One of the glories of being human is that we’re the only creature that can intentionally rise above impulses that nature has implanted in us. What a miracle! Our self-consciousness and intelligence make it possible to reflect on some deep aspect of ourselves and say, “No, I reject that,” and act contrary to it. For example, it seems to be a natural impulse, or at least a natural tendency, for us to treat unattractive or uncharismatic or obese or short people differently from their opposites, to show them less appreciation or affection (other things being equal). This seems to be true in every society, and so must be grounded in nature, in natural responses to the world. Nature, in fact, has given us a myriad of immoral, “illiberal” impulses. But it has also given us the ability to internalize others’ viewpoints, thus giving us empathy and allowing us to invent the concept of morality. And so we can say, “No, it’s wrong to treat people differently on the basis of qualities that are not part of the moral sphere, such as height or skin color or attractiveness,” and adjust our behavior accordingly, to some extent defying nature. Indeed, such moral defiance of nature is a major manifestation of humans’ unique freedom; and so, as classical thinkers have said or implied (Plato, the Stoics, Kant, Hegel, Goethe), we are in a sense acting more freely—less “instinctively”—when we choose to act morally and rationally rather than hedonistically or in other ways determined by primitive impulses. Not only is moral behavior right; it’s dignified.
Literature in the service of compassion.— I recommend Gogol’s story “Diary of a Madman.” Comedy and tragedy are united seamlessly: the more comical it becomes, the more tragic. It’s reminiscent of Don Quixote, except more moving. A civil servant who has been ground into the dirt for decades, treated as a nobody, his sole purpose in life to sharpen His Excellency’s quills and copy out documents—becomes infatuated with His Excellency’s daughter. He starts having conversations with her dog, to find out more about her. The more debased he is, the more his humanity rebels: he has been so degraded that he comes to believe he is King Ferdinand VIII of Spain, waiting for the deputation that will take him to his new kingdom. Instead it takes him to an insane asylum (which he thinks is Spain)—after he has finally, in his own eyes, regained his dignity by behaving like a king with the clerks at his office. His delusion has even given him the courage to declare his love to the girl. (Courage required delusion, because of the delusive trappings of society.) But in the asylum they manage to strip him even of his life-saving insanity: he cries out that he is a miserable wretch, that he longs for his mother in his old peasant hut. “Give me a troika with horses swift as the whirlwind! Climb up, driver, and let the bells ring! Soar away, horses, and carry me from this world!” But after this piteous speech, the last sentence of the story is the comical non sequitur, “And did you know that the Dhey of Algiers has a wart right under his nose?” The man is obsessed with little things like that, little flaws in appearance, little gradations in rank, because that’s what his society is obsessed with. And that’s the tragedy of it. He has been made incapable of seeing his humanity, even as he screams inwardly that he is a man!
You see, appearance is everything. Social status determines all. It takes a change in his self-perceived status for the man to finally put an end (in his own eyes) to his dehumanization. That’s the only way people know how to, in this world. There is no such thing as humanizing yourself, because the only way to do so is to play the game of social rank, which is a dehumanizing game. You can’t break out of the framework; the charade has become the cast of your mind. So even if you’re a king, you’re still dehumanized.
And obviously the dog is symbolic.
What a masterful story! Totally free of bathos—totally lighthearted—but infinitely tragic. It forces the reader to rely on his imagination, to imagine the real situation behind the character who writes such silly journal entries. At forty-two years of age he goes insane. Think of all the pain behind that! We’re forced to imagine the pain, though, which makes it more effective. –Through such means, literature can sharpen our moral sense.
The fraudulence of status.— In order to determine someone’s intellectual or artistic integrity and acuity, a simple test is available. It has to be supplemented with others, but it’s useful. If in any context you can tell that someone is responding to a set of ideas or a work differently from how he otherwise would have on the basis of who produced it, you know he lacks integrity as an intellectual or an artist. If it’s clear that he dismisses a work or an idea because it wasn’t produced by a person with the proper credentials, the proper status or fame or institutional qualifications—or, conversely, if he positively values a work because it was produced by such a person—you can write him off as shallow or a fake. I’m talking particularly about people who, as judged by society, are supposed to be the “experts” in some given field, in other words academics, artists, critics—the arbiters of taste and “truth.” If they show any snobbery or credentials-worship or groupthink, you know immediately that, to that extent, they’re charlatans and frauds.
By this standard, unfortunately, the enormous majority of intellectuals and artists are, to some degree, frauds. As I said above, they value institutional conventions more than genuine merit. An art critic will extravagantly praise some silly painting with a respected name attached to it and ignore a nearly identical painting by an unknown. So then you know: “Buffoon.” An academic philosopher won’t care about original ideas he reads in a student’s paper but will be terrifically impressed by unoriginal or simplistic ideas he reads in a book by Foucault or some lesser-known colleague. “Buffoon.” Since institutions function by virtue of groupthink and snobbery, it’s no surprise that virtually everyone (at least among the higher-ups) in a given institution is a groupthinker and a snob.
One sees it constantly. It’s the very air one breathes in any elite institution. To give a random and perhaps subtle example: years ago I attended a literary conference for a few days and took these notes:
There are public readings every night, usually by the famous writers here. Ravi Shankar, Alexander Chee, Josip Novakovich, Katha Pollitt (annoying liberal feminist). But last night and tonight, readings by students. Much less well-attended, of course, than the celebrities’ readings. But they’re more enjoyable, more affecting. All these diverse people, many of them shy and worn down by life, all talented, all sharing their private lives with strangers. Brought together by a love of something the culture doesn’t love; the only common denominator a love of writing. People not famous, writing on faith. Predictably none of the famous people attends these readings, only a few students. But they’re so much more powerful than those other readings! Far more intimate, certainly more transporting because no ego is involved and no books outside waiting to be bought, only mysterious pasts like that woman whose every piece is about her son Simon who died young and those women who read quietly with head bowed low, their writing wonderful. What has brought them here? What pasts? Most of them won’t be successful authors because few people have the right luck and connections, but they continue writing anyway on faith.
At the celebrity readings the audience is duly appreciative, basking in the presence of fame, applauding the sometimes idiotic selections on display. (For example, Katha Pollitt read a piece that related her experiences with a small group of Marxist activists; most of it was devoted to glib jokes at their expense, which duly elicited laughter from the audience.) The whole charade, with all the glamor and self-congratulation and two-minute-long introductions of each writer, repulsed me. Such artificiality! Any of the poems and stories written by the students could have been read and would have received the same applause; people would have been clamoring to buy the book, would have wanted autographs—although, actually, those reactions might have been relatively justified, since some of the students’ work was better than the celebrities’. Only in the later, sparsely attended student readings could one escape the snobbery and credentials-worship.
Evidently there is something about “high status” that brings out human mediocrity. –For one thing, the spectacle of it all, of the cultural world, is supremely vulgar. No one is more vulgar than an intellectual trying to get noticed. Just think of the Slavoj Žižeks dancing for the cameras, clamoring for attention, costuming themselves (sometimes literally) in whatever garb will provoke a response from the culture industry. Fashionable decadents, clownish self-promoters, actors on the stage of a (now) dying civilization. Such as when a Žižek makes it his mission to offend the delicate sensibilities of his liberal intellectual friends—declaring, for instance, that “the problem with Hitler was that he wasn’t violent enough.” “What?!” the culture industry duly gasps, playing along by pretending to be aghast. “Well,” he gives his prepared response, “Hitler’s violence didn’t fundamentally challenge the system, and in this sense Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” Ah, good point, great contribution, way to contribute to rational discourse—let’s play on the meaning of “violence” and twist it around to provoke our liberal friends and capture the headlines of a bored intellectual world, since the only thing that matters is getting noticed. These people, these insular attention-whores of the elite—and, more generally, all the millions of pseudo-intellectual upper-crusters and middle-crusters who in their parasitic boredom take them seriously, just as they take seriously (or play the game of taking seriously) all and only those who have the stamp of some elite institution’s approval on their forehead—as though the whole charade of status, recognition, riches, resumé-padding, curricula vitae, means anything!—should be seen not really as autonomous and dignified human beings but more as institutional byproducts, waste products of the culture-factories. Such a huge industry with such huge profits is bound, after all, to produce a titanic volume of pollution.
What all this phony status-worship amounts to, in short, is anti-democracy. We don’t live in a democratic world, which is just to say we don’t live in a human world, a world based on individuality, morality, clear communication, and rationality. We live, as I’ve said, in an institutionally structured world—what’s worse, a world structured by capitalist institutions. Integrity and merit will rarely be rewarded in such a world, and democracy will barely exist.
In a sense, though, these reflections should be a comfort to the millions of people who unjustly suffer from a lack of recognition, whether they’re talented artists or dedicated activists. Their lack of recognition, far from proving their lack of worth, can be thought of as an indication of it, since what civilization values is pretense and fraud. And highly “successful” people should ask themselves what their success suggests about them, and whether they too, like so many others, are living an inauthentic existence.
With regard to the elite, another test for intellectual integrity is readily available: simply ask the person in question what he thinks of Noam Chomsky. If he expresses contempt or scorn, you know what to think of him. Assuming he isn’t ignorant of Chomsky’s work, he has either internalized conventional norms and ideologies, and thus has become blind to facts and moral truisms, or he is a fundamentally dishonest person. (Or both.) Alan Dershowitz is the obvious example.
The reason I make these seemingly harsh and closed-minded judgments is that nearly all Chomsky’s political, social, and ethical commentary follows from elementary values and truths and is backed up by overwhelming evidence. Most of what he says is, indeed, mere common sense, expressed eloquently. Only a mind that has been subtly or egregiously warped could fail to see the essential social and moral truth in his opinions, or would fail to be impressed by his reasoning and his superhuman factual knowledge. It’s no surprise, then, that most “ordinary people” wherever he goes seem to adore him, and that authorities and the elite loathe him. For the latter have achieved their station by internalizing warped norms, while the former, who have not had to be so deeply indoctrinated (because they’re more distant from the workings of power), still have common sense and understand moral principles, such as that you should apply to yourself the standards you apply to others. Or that participatory democracy is a positive value. Or that it’s good to alleviate others’ suffering. These three principles alone, in conjunction with an array of facts, are enough to establish Chomsky’s positions.
Intellectuals love to insist that “things are complicated,” in part because it’s by complicating simple things that they get a paycheck—but also because it absolves them of the responsibility to take a stand against the powerful institutions they serve—and then they dismiss Chomsky because of his supposedly simple-minded statements. But moral truths are, in fact, not terribly complicated. In any case, it is clear what to think of people who flippantly denounce someone but rarely or never give specific examples to justify the denunciation. (Or, when they do give examples, they actually redound to Chomsky’s credit, as in the case of his consistently defending the right to free speech of people who hold obnoxious views. How deformed must a mind be not to understand that defending the right of a Holocaust-denier like Robert Faurisson to air his views isn’t the same thing as defending the views themselves??* The very notion of principle is foreign to the average intellectual—a fact that Chomsky himself documents abundantly.)
*“The Faurisson affair” of the late 1970s is worth reading about if you want an example of cleanliness fighting an uphill battle against pollution.
The upside-down world.— Given the nature of modern society, failure is a point in one’s favor. –Our world is like a stagnant pond: the scum floats to the top.*
*As the historian Albert Prago said, in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.
Popular sanity.— No reasonable person would deny that pop culture is a vulgar, artificial, debased and debasing thing. Does this mean that “the people”—who tend to enjoy pop culture—are vulgar and debased? Not necessarily. For one thing, we should distinguish between popular culture and pop culture, “the corporate-sponsored mass culture that is so often mistaken for [the former],” to quote T. J. Jackson Lears. Genuine popular culture is the kind of thing there was among the farmers in the 1890s’ Populist movement, among New England’s Italian anarchists in the early twentieth century, and among working-class communities of the nineteenth century.* Neighborhood theaters, festivals, picnics, churches, benefit societies, cooperatives, democratic labor unions, Communist-associated ethnic workers’ clubs in the 1930s—every conceivable form of mutuality. Popular culture is bottom-up, not top-down, and so brings together. Mass culture, by contrast, is founded on the co-optation and mutilation of a few popular impulses into means of making profit, tools of business. Whatever is good and authentic in the original becomes bad and commercial in the copy. In music: classical, jazz, blues, bluegrass, folk, rap—all can be puerilized, vulgarized, atomized, lucrified. Same with literature, theater, the plastic arts, religion, dance, and sex. It can all cease to be a means of authentic expression, a sublime sublimation of individuality, as it becomes impersonal—impersonally replicated on the assembly-line of capitalist culture.
It’s the same, incidentally, with social movements. Truly popular movements are anti-authoritarian, even anarchistic, emancipatory; the Ku Klux Klans, the fascism, the McCarthyism, the social conservatism are not populist but pseudo-populist, business-engendered and -supported.** Strains of authentic popular discontent are manipulated, attenuated, and directed to new repressive ends as the elite sees in them an opportunity.
People value art, self-expression, and emancipation. In a society that doesn’t reward those things—or actively suppresses them—many people will embrace their ubiquitous substitutes and even cling to them desperately to escape, if momentarily, a life of hassled boredom. When one is surrounded by fun and “sexy” distractions, sees everyone else indulging in them, and is relentlessly pressured to do the same oneself, it requires a willful and rebellious nature to turn away from them and into the past or an alternative present. One may, therefore, end up with low cultural tastes—or, politically, sympathize with a pseudo-populist “movement” like the Tea Party—but the deep-seated human affinity for high art and high values can never be wholly eradicated. Even a world formed and defined by anti-human social structures cannot destroy the instinct for beauty and high creativity, which is wont to show itself in small and unexpected ways.
We’re reminded of all this by the socialist Oscar Ameringer’s autobiography, If You Don’t Weaken (1940). In it he describes proselytizing for socialism in the 1890s, in isolated communities in Oklahoma, where he got a good reception. The “white trash” took a liking to him and his message.
“White trash!” [he writes]. There is good stuff in those people. If many of them now are below par it is not their nature that made them so, but the greed and stupidity of their so-called betters…
Dinner over, and dishes washed, the two o’clock meeting started under the big tent with singing and instrumental music. Singing was led by our choir, recruited on the ground. The instrumental music was supplied by myself and three sons, and we played only the best, so far as the best can be played by a brass quartet augmented by piano. Before our instrumental concert, I usually gave a short lecture on classical music, which I defined as Bill Nye had defined Wagner’s music: “it is a helluva lot better than it sounds.” I also explained how to acquire the appreciation of good music by simply listening to it with all your mind and heart. Believe it or not, we played arrangements of Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert quartets, chorals of Bach, songs of Mendelssohn…and of course gems from Stephen Foster, America’s own sweet singer. They loved it. Those simple people took to good music like ducks to water. Their minds were not yet corrupted by the Tin Pan Alley trash that later was a music for profit. Besides, “classical music” is folk music clarified, interpreted and ennobled by the great masters, and these were folk people.***
What we need are social structures that bring out the best in us, not the basest.
*See, e.g., Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
**See Jesse Lemisch, On Active Service in War and Peace (New Hogtown Press, 1975).
***Oscar Ameringer, If You Don’t Weaken (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1940), 265, 266.
The dialectic of business’s attacks on the public sphere.— In my Master’s thesis, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution (2010), I argued that in the coming decades, the state and the ruling class, in order to partly contain popular discontent and so prop up their power, will probably have to evolve in ways that will undermine their position in the long run. I ought to have noted that neoliberalism itself—the state’s configuration in the past thirty-five years—has shown similar dynamics. It has been the means by which the ruling class has maintained and even augmented its power after the popular uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, but ultimately it will prove—or is proving—to have made the long-term position of the ruling class untenable. It has so undermined social stability that I suspect power-structures all over the world are panicking now. In the last twenty years there has been a militarizing of police forces and an expansion of the “national security” state in order to control the population, and these trends are intensifying. But they won’t prove adequate to the challenge. As the global economy falls apart and privatization continues to rend the social fabric, the ruling class will, I think, have to start tolerating and even supporting the kinds of decentralized “solidarity economy”-esque initiatives Gar Alperovitz discusses in What Then Must We Do? (2013), because they’ll be thought to help stabilize society and will seem less subversive towards power than mass political movements (which will exist too). Gradually, with the conditional help of sectors of the ruling class that don’t understand the historical significance of their actions, a new society will thereby be constructed in the interstices of the dying one. Thus, the rich and their state will advance to another stage of the dialectic, another stage of their self-undermining, in which they participate more actively—out of necessity—in destroying the conditions of their rule. The “necessity” of this stage, if it occurs, will have organically emerged from the previous neoliberal phase, which itself grew out of the unsustainability of the earlier, more “populist” phase (the heyday of the welfare and regulatory state between the 1940s and 1970s), and so on back to the beginning. Marx was right that history has a logic.
Capitalist parricide.— The nation-state and capitalism were born as twins from the fertile, ancient womb of greed and power-hunger. They grew up together, were playmates from an early age—going on treasure hunts, playing Cowboys and Indians, in their later years preferring Monopoly—learned from each other, helped each other achieve their dreams, relied on each other in difficult times. Their youths and early adulthood were full of storms and stresses, brutal competition with bullies in their neighborhood—feudalism, aristocracy, absolute monarchy, foreign empires—in addition to more distant but redoubtable enemies like community, untamed nature, and the stubborn human urge for freedom, but in the end, working together, they were able to triumph over all adversaries. And yet just at the pinnacle of their glory, cracks in their relationship emerged: the nation-state, the (slightly) more responsible partner, resented capitalism’s reckless and profligate ways and thus demanded adherence to codes of behavior that capitalism found onerous. So the latter, having always been the more ambitious and restless one, plotted to free itself from all constraints, whatever the cost. At last the opportunity arose: with the help of new technology it broke free of nation-statist, welfare-statist restrictions and roamed the world unencumbered by social contracts or conscience. Power-mad, it reveled in orgies of violence and destruction that reduced every country they touched to semi-chaos. With blind disloyalty, having been corrupted to the point of insanity by power, it finally even turned against its brother and plotted to kill the nation-state. Perhaps the state’s continued remonstrances against the totalitarianism of profit-making, feeble and infrequent though they were, annoyed it. Whatever its motives, capitalism resolved to sabotage the laws, conventions, contracts, treaties, borders, and civil society organizations that were the conditions of its brother’s life: former compromises between the siblings were scrapped, and capitalism appropriated more and more of the world to its own private sphere of arbitrary power. The resultant social disorganization, popular protest, and ruination of nature amounted to a slow-acting poison wending its way through the nation’s metabolism, making it ever sicker and more desperate to suppress every rebellious symptom of the illness. At the same time the state, ironically, behaved especially abjectly toward its conniving and too-powerful brother/partner, trying to stay in capitalism’s good graces—and too weak now, anyway, to act independently. All its efforts, however, were for naught: its sibling had outgrown it and showed no mercy. The nation-state succumbed to its afflictions and approached death. –But a surprise lay in wait for capitalism. Far from now being the supreme, unchallenged power on earth, it found, as it stared in epiphanic panic at its collapsing brother, that in killing the nation-state it had also killed itself! A reckoning worthy of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror! The dying state could no longer protect capitalism from its enemies or its own demonic will to self-destruction, and so it, too, advanced swiftly to its mortality. Thus the brothers, still dripping with blood from all their conquests, were swallowed up in the death-heap of history, to which they had themselves contributed so mightily. Death reclaimed its own.*
*See my paper “The Tortured Demise of the Nation-State,” here.
Lessons from history.— The elite has the money, but the workers have the dignity. The elite consumes; the workers produce. Future ages always forget the past elite or view its decadence with horrified contempt; the lower classes go on to found new societies and are vindicated. The masters die off, Hegel said, being collectively a parasitic excrescence, while the slaves birth new worlds. Think of the old American South: the slaves went on to form cultures of Christian love and soulful living—the “Negro spiritual,” gospel, ragtime, blues, jazz, arts of sublimated emancipation—while the slave-masters’ culture, based on idle leisure and violent exploitation of a productive people, withered away. Think of the French ancien régime: the aristocracy was good only for patronizing its artistic servants (Mozart and others), while the sans-culottes made revolutions that began the modern era. Think of ancient Rome: the grand empire collapsed under the weight of its own rot, as the despised barbarians triumphed and a more democratic Europe rose. Thus will our modern global empire collapse, our modern aristocracy succumb to its own decadence, and our sans-culottes lead the way to a new world.