As Syria continues its slide from insurgency into civil war, and no one any longer expects the ruling Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to triumph, it is an appropriate moment in history to reflect upon the fall of tyrants and tyrannical regimes. Not that we haven’t had ample opportunity to do so in recent years. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and the fall of a series of Arab dictators in recent years has given us all much material for reflection (chronicled in posts such as Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny and Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation).
I have previously written about Syria in Things fall apart, Open Letter in the FT on Syria, The Structures of Autocratic Rule, and What will Assad do when he goes to Ground? Much more remains to be said, on Syria in particular and on the collapse of tyrants generally.
The obvious problems of governmental succession in Syria are already being discussed ad nauseam in the press. That there is trouble on the horizon is evident to all who carefully follow the developments of the region in which Syria is a central nation-state, bordering no fewer than five nation-states: Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. This centrality of Syria in a politically unstable region has led the surrounding regional powers to favor the devil they know rather than to chance the devil they know not. The ruling Alawite regime of Syria has been held in place not only by its own brutality, but also by the tacit consent of its neighbors. Now that the fall of the al-Assad dynasty is in sight, there are legitimate worries about the radicalization of the insurgents and the role of Islamist Jihadis in the insurgency. No one knows what will come out of this toxic stew, but it is likely to resemble a failed state even upon its inception.
At this moment in history, Syria is now the bellweather for the fall of tyrants, but Syria is only the current symptom of an ancient problem that goes back to the dawn of state power in human history. Since the earliest emergence of absolute state power in agricultural civilization, for the first time in human history sufficiently wealthy to support a standing army that could be employed by turns to oppress a tyrant’s own people or as an instrument to conquer and oppress other peoples, there has been a tension between the ability of absolute power to effectively exercise this absolute power to maintain itself in power and the ability of rivals or of subject peoples to wrest this power from the hands of absolute rulers and seize it for themselves.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the institutions of tyrannical political rule are not sustainable. Tyrannical rule may be sustainable for the life of a tyrant, or for a few generations of a dynasty established by a tyrant, but history teaches us that tyrannical longevity is the exception and not the rule. The more onerous the rule of the tyrant, the more other factions will risk to overthrow the tyrant. A tyrant who sufficiently modifies his tyranny until it is approximately representative is likely to last much longer in power, and over time approximates non-tyrannical rule. But if a tyrant simply cuts a few others in on the spoils, creating a tyrannical oligarchy, the same considerations apply. In the long term, only popular rule is sustainable.
But what does this mean to say that in the long term only popular rule is sustainable? The learned reader at this point in likely to begin a recitation of the failings of democracy, but I didn’t say that only democratic regimes persist. Unfortunately for most human beings throughout history, the fall of a tyrant has not resulted in democracy. The most vicious tyrannies call forth the most vicious elements in the population as the only agents willing to risk the overthrow of the tyrant, and so one tyrant is likely to be replaced by another. Even if a popular revolt and revulsion helped to topple the previous tyranny, the new tyranny reverts to perennial tyrannical form, and in so doing eventually alienates the popular movement that installed it in place of the previous tyranny.
This is a particular case of what I have called The Failure Cycle, since this pattern can be iterated. Much of human history has consisted of just such an iteration of petty tyrants, one following the other. That nothing is accomplished politically by the churning of tyrannical regimes should be obvious. There is no social evolution, no social growth, no strengthening of institutions that can provide continuity beyond the vagaries of personal rule.
Thus one consequence of the fact that only popular rule is sustainable is the possibility of an endless iteration of popular movements to overthrow serial tyranny, each tyrant in turn having been installed by a popular uprising. This constitutes a perverse kind of “popular” rule, though it is not often recognized as such or called as much.
Tyrannical regimes typically bend every effort in order to suppress, or at very least to delay, social change. The suppression and delay of social change means that societies laboring under tyrannical regimes — and especially those that have labored under a sequence of tyrannical regimes — have little opportunity to allow social change to come to maturity and for old institutions to be allowed to die while new institutions rise to take their place. Cynics will opine that there is no social evolution in human history, but I deny this. Social evolution is possible, if rare, but the conditions that lead to serial tyranny and serial popular uprisings are not conducive to the cultivation of social evolution.
It is the historical exception to interrupt this vicious cycle of serial tyranny and serial popular uprising, but it takes time for informal social institutions to reach the level of maturity that allows a popular uprising to install a genuine democracy instead of a tyrant who claims to be a democrat out of political expediency.
Homo non facit saltus. Man makes no leaps. We cannot skip a stage in our social evolution. We cannot impose democratic institutions, or freedom, or even prosperity. A people must come to it on their own, with the maturation of their native institutions, or not at all.
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13 February 2013
In The Accidental World I said that individuals possess axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness — the very contingency of the world, the historical accidents of which we are the consequences, furnishes us with the concrete expressions of our individuality: faces, bodies, boundaries, borders — all that is ours.
It may have appeared mildly ironic to some that I should begin my trip to Japan with a meditation on individuality. Japan is, after all, known in the west as the source of the proverb that the stake that sticks up gets hammered down (出る杭は打たれる。 Deru kui wa utareru).
While Japan is stereotypically a land of stultifying conformity, Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the result of wartime research commissioned by the U.S. Office of War Information, presents the reader with a sequence of dramatic contradictions of the Japanese character:
“The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep. Their soldiers are disciplined to the hilt but are also insubordinate.”
Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Chapter I, “Assignment: Japan”
In other words, the Japanese are human, all-too-human. There was never a more persuasive argument for universal human nature than a detailed study of the life of a people that reveals their inner nature to be as conflicted as the inner nature of any other people.
In the same spirit of Benedict’s contradictory character traits, one would expect that the Japanese are at once both pervasively conformist and yet profoundly individualistic. The same might be said of Europeans, Africans, Latins, Americans, and so on.
What is distinctive about a people and a culture — that which is distinctively theirs and not ours — is the way in which the conflicted components of human nature are manifested in social institutions. And social institutions can vary quite significantly. Every society must find a way to keep the better part of its people fed, clothed, washed, housed, and occupied, but within these rather generous parameters there are ample opportunities for social experiments not duplicated elsewhere in the world.
Human beings, being all derived from a single speciation event, have a unity that cultural institutions do not possess. Social institutions, far more than individuals, embody the historical accidents that vary from place to place and time to time.
What we find when we travel are human beings, the same as human beings any other place on the planet, but whose lives have been shaped by the geographical and historical accidents that remain localized — unlike ourselves. We individuals do not remain localized. Like our prehistoric ancestors, we can start walking, and if we walk long enough and far enough (and maybe canoe for a while as well) we will find ourselves in another world shaped by other forces of geography and history than those familiar to us.
It is an accident that any of us happens live where we live, just as it is an accident where we happen to be born. It is partially an accident, and partially a matter of choice, where we happen to travel. If we start walking, we first find ourselves at our neighbor’s, and then our neighbor’s neighbor, and so on. Their lives are as accidental as are our lives. That they are the closest Other (and therefore representative of the narcissism of small differences) is as much an accident as where we happen to be born ourselves.
If we spend a little more time planning our expeditions, not merely setting out to walk away from our accidental home, but seeking a place in the world that agrees with our temperament, tastes, or preferences — that, too, is an accident, for while human nature (if there is any) may be traced to a single speciation event, individual temperament is an accident of history, and the places in the world that happen to offer aesthetic, intellectual, pragmatic, or other satisfaction to the individual mind do so as a matter of chance.
De gustibus non est disputandum.
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9 February 2013
In the antebellum American south, slavery was called the south’s “peculiar institution,” so it is perhaps unfair to use this particular phrase to describe anything other than antebellum slavery. Also, the word “peculiar” has taken on insulting connotations, so that its use is generally avoided. However, it would probably be worse to try to speak in terms of, for example, “autochthnous institutions” or “indigenous institutions” while “parochial institutions” or “provincial institutions” both definitely carry the wrong connotations. So I visited two peculiarly Japanese institutions, and they are definitely peculiar institutions — or indigenous, or autochthnous, or whatever other phrase you’d like to employ: the Japanese Sword Museum and the Meiji Jingū (the shrine to the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken). Both are as narrowly conceived as the Tokyo National Museum is grandly and comprehensively conceived. Their great value lies precisely in this narrowness.
The ethical code of the Samurai has been given an explicit formulation in the form of Bushidō (武士道), a confluence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism, although (as is the case with most explicitly formulated doctrines) Bushidō is only the late culmination of an ancient tradition that goes deep into the history of a people, intertwined and integral with a way of life. And the way of life is ultimately more fundamental that any particular expression of that way of life. Thus the meaning of Bushidō must ultimately be sought in the lifeways of the Japanese people and the traditions of Japanese civilization, rather than being understood as an exclusive expression of the elite class of a rigid feudal system (which it unquestionably was as well). The austerity of Bushidō, its aestheticized asceticism, must then be attributed to the wider culture in the same way that the Christian ideal of a medieval European knight is to be sought in the culture of medieval Christendom. And indeed a trip to the Japanese Sword Museum is an experience in keeping with the austere Zen ethic of the Samurai who wielded the swords, and one would be perhaps equally justified to speak of a Zen aesthetic as of a Zen ethic.
The Japanese Sword Museum consists of a single room constructed as a museum vault (like the Gold Museum in Peru) with a glass case running around the walls of the single room. Behind the glass are a series of blades. Only the blades. There are a few swords with grips and scabbards, but most of the swords are displayed as blades only. There is nothing here to distract from the austere purity of the sword blade presented in splendid isolation. The oldest blades on display from the 12th century looked nearly as new as the 19th century blades on display. Most of the blades were signed including many of the earliest blades. Even in the 12th century the sword makers were signing their work, like some of the most famous Greek potters in ancient Athens.
If you visit a European museum of armaments (and I have been to several, though I should mention that housed with the Gold Museum in Peru, mentioned above, there is also an armaments museum, so it isn’t just in Europe) you will be confronted with a bewildering display of every imaginable weapons design. There are swords (and guns) of every possible design and description. This is not what you will see in the Japanese sword museum. Here the swords are displayed as the blade only, and all these blades are to essentially the same design. This is not to say that there are no differences among the blades. Some are longer or shorter, more or less curved, and there are slight slight differences in tempering visible by the particular coloration of the blade. It is as though each individual blade were striving to approximate the ideal Platonic Form of a sword, and the individual, contingent details of each were mere mundane deviations from the ideal and perfect sword.
After the Japanese Sword Museum a walk through Yoyogi Park will bring you to the Torii Gate that marks the entrance to Meiji Jingū, an extensive shrine to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Set in a large forested park, the Meiji Shrine is a wooden structure of noble proportions, by which I mean that it was large and elegant, but not overly large or excessively elegant. I read that the whole shrine had been destroyed in the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt. It is structurally similar to many of the monumental wooden shrines in Kyoto (which was not bombed and burned in the Second World War). The whole architectural ensemble has a wonderful serenity that belies its relatively recent rebuilding; it would be easy to imagine that this shrine has stood here undisturbed for centuries.
If I understand what I saw and what I read, people come here to worship the spirit (kami) of the Meiji emperor. After washing at stations outside the shrine itself — first the left hand, then the right, the left again and finally one’s mouth — one approaches through a large gateway, passes through a spacious quadrangle and approaches another quadrangle that one does not enter. There is a box to collect coins that acts as a (closed) gate to this second quadrangle. The ritual appeared to involve tossing a 50 Yen coin into the collection box, clapping twice, bowing twice, and closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head forward in prayer. These prayers lasted anywhere from a part of a second to several minutes in length. One suspects that the duration of prayer corresponds to detail and care with which the wish or desire has been formulated, like an exercise in creative visualization. Usually those who approached the shrine and made an offering and a prayer would give another small bow before walking away, a step or two backward first before turning around.
I have tried to describe the visitors to Meiji Jingū and their rituals as plainly as possible, since Western monotheistic distortions usually seriously misunderstand non-Western religious traditions, and especially those traditions of the far east of Asia — Buddhism and Confucianism — which are in no sense supernaturalistic, though both incorporate vaguely animist elements. To the Westerner unable to transcend his own traditions, praying to the spirit of a deceased emperor represents the worst kind of idolatry and superstition, but if you actually visit Meiji Jingū it doesn’t feel or appear the slightest idolatrous or superstitious. It is, on the contrary, supremely dignified.
At the Meiji Shrine I happened to be present for a procession of a traditional Shinto wedding, which was an impressive sight that got the attention of all the cameras in the immediate vicinity (mine included). Later I saw a second traditional Shinto wedding, and later still I saw an office that arranges weddings at the shrine, so it appears that traditional Shinto weddings are an industry for the Meiji Shrine.
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29 December 2012
To compare medieval civilization and industrial civilization may be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, since the two ideas come from two different civilizational periodizations based on different ideas of organizing our thought about civilization. The idea of medieval civilization derives from the familiar Western scheme of periodizing civilization into ancient, medieval and modern, while the idea of industrial civilization derives from the more recent tripartite periodization of human history in hunter-gatherer nomadism, agrarian civilization, and industrial civilization.
Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from comparison and contrast even across incommensurable paradigms, if not especially across incommensurable paradigms. From a philosophical point of view, there is nothing more interesting that comparing distinct ontologies, which is to say, comparing the different ways that different philosophers divide up one and the same world into ultimate constituents — or, to appeal to two different images used by contemporary philosophers: 1) comparing two different inventories of the ultimate furniture of the universe, or 2) comparing two different ways of carving nature at the joints. Medieval and industrial civilization represent two distinct ways of carving civilization at the joints.
I often appeal to examples and parallels drawn from medieval civilization, because medieval civilization has a special didactic value: with medieval civilization we have an instance of a particular species of civilization that emerged within historical times, flourished, and then vanished, so that the whole of the process was documented and the story of this civilization itself is a completed narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When we think of our own industrialized civilization as a whole — and while I think of it like this all the time, this is atypical, because most people don’t notice their own civilization any more than the air they breathe — we tend to think of it as a phenomenon at or near its full developmental potential. The persistent apocalypticism and declensionism of our times encourages us in this view, because it suggests that our civilization has reached its peak and has no where to go but down. This is a mistake. Some day we will be able to say of industrial-technological civilization that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end and achieved narrative closure in this way. At present, however, industrialized civilization is a work in progress. We do not yet know what it will look like from a distance, as it were, when we (or others) are able to bear witness not only to its rise and greatness, but also to its decline and fall.
What I would like to suggest is that we do not yet even know what industrial-technological civilization will look like at its height, much less its maturity, because we are still in the formative stages of our civilization, such as it is. The industrial revolution, beginning a little more than two hundred years ago, has still to transform all the world. It is steadily working toward this transformation, and we can see the signs of this transformation everywhere, but we can also see that this transformation is far from complete.
I have argued in The Industrial-Technological Thesis (and argued the underside of the same in Industrial-Technological Disruption) that the civilization now being constituted is uniquely characterized by the spiraling feedback of science, technology, and engineering. I tried to refine how this escalating cycle of feedback came into existence in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, and I tried to show how this cycle can fail or be interrupted in Industrial-Technological Disruption.
If I am right about our civilization being uniquely characterized by this spiral of advancing science, technology, and engineering, industrialized civilization will always be changing and never reach a point of equilibrium. This would make it problematic to identify any particular point of height or maturity for this civilization, but we can take a different perspective by understanding the consolidation (and therefore, in a sense, the maturity) of industrial-technological civilization to have come about when the world entire exemplifies this form of civilization. I suggested in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce that it is only at this point of industrial maturity that Marx’s predictions can be judged to be true or failed.
To return to the example of medieval civilization, if an individual today is familiar with medieval civilization at all, they are likely to be familiar only with the later stages of medieval civilization, unless they appeal to a semi-mythical Arthurian England (or its equivalents elsewhere in Europe). Except for scholars in medieval history, little is known of early medieval history. If one begins to become aware of medieval history with the crusades, moving on to the construction of the great cathedrals, the formulation of the scholastic intellectual synthesis, the Black Death, and then the gradual unwinding of medieval institutions under the pressure of emerging modernity (really, modernism without industrialism), one is beginning with a civilization already more at less at its height, having reached a point of internal development that it turns to projecting its power outward into the wider world.
Prior to the crusades, medieval civilization had at least five hundred years of development to bring itself to a point of development at which it possessed the resources to engage in the crusades, which not only involved a lot of second sons looking for glory (and loot), but also arms and armor, shipping, foodstuffs, and the maintenance of institutions in the absence of significant military assets. It is, of course, controversial to fix a particular date for the beginning of medievalism, but somewhere between, say, the 400s to the 500s AD, Roman imperial power collapsed in Western Europe and was replaced by local regimes and a local way of life focused on the land, not on trade or industry.
As I said, it is inherently controversial to name a date at which medieval civilization begins, but even if we fix that beginning at any of the later dates that are sometimes used, the medieval world developed for hundreds of years before it reached its maturity, and it is only in its maturity that those of us who are not medieval scholars begin to become aware of medieval history. In other words, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, as it has existed so far, occupies less than half of the time that was needed for medieval civilization to come to maturity.
Although history now proceeds at a blistering pace, the potential scope of a civilization is much larger. Medieval civilization took almost five hundred years to consolidate itself in the Western European peninsula. Despite the rapidity of history in the industrial age, we can see with our own eyes that a little over two hundred years of development have sufficed to bring industrialized civilization to much of the world, but not yet all of the world, and as we make this observation it is intuitively obvious (as much as anything in history can be said to be intuitively obvious) that global consolidation is the inevitable telos of industrialism. Our civilization is more dynamic and faster moving, but it has much more ground to cover before it could be said to have achieved its natural teleology.
In the far future, when our distant progeny can see industrial-technological civilziation synoptically, as a whole, I think it will be clear that, two hundred years into the process of industrialization, that process is still far from complete, and the civilzation that will issue from this process is still far from reaching its mature form and attaining the heights of its development.
In some earlier posts I have already alluded to this. In Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that industrial society had passed through two paradigms of social organization and was more-or-less groping its way to a third paradigm of social organization. Industrial society may ultimately have to pass through many stages of social paradigmata before it arrives at a form of social organization that is in consonance with the institutions of industrialized society.
In The Next Axial Age I suggested that each macro-historical division of civilization may come to maturity in an axial age, that the Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was but the Axial Age of Agrarian civilization, and that industrialized civilization may yet be hundreds of years from its axial moment.
The absence of adequate social institutions and of an axialization period clearly points to industrial-technological civilization being yet in its formative stages.
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25 December 2012
Prior to the advent of civilization, the human condition was defined by nature. The biosphere of the Earth, with all its diverse flora and fauna, was the predominant fact of human experience. Very little that human beings did could have an effect on the human condition beyond the most immediate effects an individual might cause in the environment, such as gathering or hunting for food. Nothing was changed by the passage of human beings through an environment that was, for them, their home. Human beings had to conform themselves to this world or die.
Since the advent of civilization, it has been civilization and not nature that determines the human condition. As one civilization has succeeded another, and, more importantly, as one kind of civilization has succeeded another kind of civilization — which latter happens far less frequently, since like kinds of civilization tend to succeed each other except when this process of civilizational succession is preempted by the emergence of an historical anomaly on the order of the initial emergence of civilization itself — the overwhelming fact of human experience has been shaped by civilization and the products of civilization, rather than by nature. This transformation from being shaped by nature to being shaped by civilization is what makes the passage from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agrarian civilization such a radical discontinuity in human experience.
This transformation has been gradual. In the earliest period of human civilizations, an entire civilization might grow up from nothing, spread regionally, assimilating local peoples not previously included in the project of civilization, and then die out, all without coming into contact with another civilization. The growth of human civilization has meant a gradual and steady increase in the density of human populations. It has already been thousands of years since a civilization could flourish and fail without encountering another civilization. It has been, moreover, hundreds of years since all human communities were bound together through networks of trade and communication.
Civilization is now continuous across the surface of the planet. The world-city — Doxiadis’ ecumenopolis, which I discussed in Civilization and the Technium — is already an accomplished fact. We retain our green spaces and our nature reserves, but all human communities ultimately are contiguous with each other, and there is no direction that you can go on the surface of the Earth without encountering another human community.
The civilization of the present, which I call industrial-technological civilization, is as distinct from the agricultural civilization that preceded it as agricultural civilization was distinct from the nomadic hunter-gatherer paradigm that preceded it in turn. In other words, the emergence of industrialization interpolated a discontinuity in the human condition on the order of the emergence of civilization itself. One of the aspects of industrial-technological civilization that distinguishes it from earlier agricultural civilization is the effective regimentation and indeed rigorization of the human condition.
The emergence of organized human activity, which corresponds to the emergence of the species itself, and which is therefore to be found in hunter-gatherer nomadism as much as in agrarian or industrial civilization, meant the emergence of institutions. At first, these institutions were as unsystematic and implicit as everything else in human experience. When civilizations began to abut each other in the agrarian era, it became necessary to make these institutions explicit and to formulate them in codes of law and regulation. At first, this codification itself was unsystematic. It was the emergence of industrialization that forced human civilizations to make its institutions not only explicit, but also systematic.
This process of systematization and rigorization is most clearly seen in the most abstract realms of thought. In the nineteenth century, when industrialization was beginning to transform the world, we see at the same time a revolution in mathematics that went beyond all the earlier history of mathematics. While Euclid famously systematized geometry in classical antiquity, it was not until the nineteenth century that mathematical thought grew to a point of sophistication that outstripped and exceeded Euclid.
From classical antiquity up to industrialization, it was frequently thought, and frequently asserted, that Euclid was the perfection of human reason in mathematics and that Aristotle was the perfection of human reason in logic, and there was simply nothing more to be done in the these fields beyond learning to repeat the lessons of the masters of antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during the period of rapid industrialization, people began to think about mathematics and logic in a way that was more sophisticated and subtle than even the great achievements of Euclid and Aristotle. Separately, yet almost simultaneously, three different mathematicians (Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann) formulated systems of non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly revolutionary work transformed logic from its Aristotelian syllogistic origins into what is now called mathematical logic, the result of the work of George Boole, Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, and many others.
At the same time that geometry and logic were being transformed, the rest of mathematics was also being profoundly transformed. Many of these transformational forces have roots that go back hundreds of years in history. This is also true of the industrial revolution itself. The growth of European society as a result of state competition within the European peninsula, the explicit formulation of legal codes and the gradual departure from a strictly peasant subsistence economy, the similarly gradual yet steady spread of technology in the form of windmills and watermills, ready to be powered by steam when the steam engine was invented, are all developments that anticipate and point to the industrial revolution. But the point here is that the anticipations did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century.
And so with mathematics. Newton and Leibniz independently invented the calculus, but it was left on unsure foundations for centuries, and Descartes had made the calculus possible by the earlier innovation of analytical geometry. These developments anticipated and pointed to the rigorization of mathematics, but the development did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century. The fruition is sometimes called the arithmetization of analysis, and involved the substitution of the limit method for fluxions in Newton and infinitesimals in Leibniz. This rigorous formulation of the calculus made possible engineering in its contemporary form, and rigorous engineering made it possible to bring the most advanced science of the day to the practical problems of industry.
Historians of mathematics and industrialization would probably cringe at my potted sketch of history, but here it is in sententious outline:
● Rigorization of mathematics also called the arithmetization of analysis
● Mathematization of science
● Scientific systematization of technology
● Technological rationalization of industry
I have discussed part of this cycle in my writings on industrial-technological civilization and the disruption of the industrial-technological cycle. The origins of this cycle involve the additional steps that made the cycle possible, and much of the additional steps are those that made logic, mathematics, and science rigorous in the nineteenth century.
The reader should also keep in mind the parallel rigorization of social institutions that occurred, including the transformation of the social sciences after the model of the hard sciences. Economics, which is particularly central to the considerations of industrial-technological civilization, has been completely transformed into a technical, mathematicized science.
With the rigorization of social institutions, and especially the economic institutions that shape human life from cradle to grave, it has been inevitable that the human condition itself should be made rigorous.
I am not suggesting this this has been a desirable, pleasant, or welcome development. On the contrary, industrial-technological civilization is beset in its most advanced quarters by a persistent apocalypticism and declensionism as industrialized populations fantasize about the end of the social regime that has come to control almost every aspect of life.
I wrote about the social dissatisfaction that issues in apocalypticism in Fear of the Future. I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and I hope to return to this theme when I can formulate my thoughts with the appropriate degree of rigor. I am seeking a definitive formulation of apocalypticism and how it is related to industrialization.
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21 September 2012
A few days ago in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II I mentioned the presentation made by Gabriel Rothblatt about spacesteading, and that I had written to ask him the following question:
If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.
I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.
Mr. Rothblatt has been kind enough to favor me with a reply, and since I promised an addendum if he did respond, here follows Mr. Rothblatt’s answers to my questions:
To answer your question about distinctions between social structures I’d have to say purpose. Space colony social structures will be focused on workforce efficiency in production or extraction, with the colonies themselves existing as means to an end and resembling economic zones with policies otherwise incongruent with standards of modern civilized life. By definition and practice a colony will have no right to control its own organization and policy, therefore given the extreme circumstances and remoteness it is highly probable that exaggerated forms of exploitation will be introduced, much like they were in the Americas, which most closely resembles the space colony scenario to-date.
It’s important to consider here that most space enthusiasts are not suited or interested in performing labor and most people in a position to perform the tasks of a colony have no interest in opting to go to space to do so. Spacesteaders came to space voluntarily for the love and/ or the freedom and adventure. Space colonists do so under duress of their economic situations on Earth.
In contrast to space colonization the concept of spacesteading does not as clearly define a specific social structure. What it does is create space based communities that are free to govern themselves. Communities may engage in production and mining for commercial gain, but do not exist for that purpose. The spacestead is the end, the mining/production a means to maintain it. In the former scenario, you would see a homogeneous model of operations, regardless if Interplanetary or Sol Systems was operating the colony. In the latter model the Mormon spacestead may look somewhat different from the Terasemian Monastery and still yet different from the Space Gambit orbital laboratory for Interstellar R&D facility or the municipality of New Nairobi. All of them having in common with each other the right to establish their own laws and existing expressly to be free communities in space, not as feeders to a remote political and economic machine.
To conclude, it is not to say that every model of space colonization we’ve dreamed till now truly fits that definition, some are apt descriptions of spacesteads. I’m not the first to propose this separation nor even the first to use the term spacesteading. As we get closer to a realization of a community in space it becomes more and more important to distinguish between the different pixels in the picture. I foresee soon we will begin to look closer at government versus corporate space colonies, perhaps even religious (although I personally do not distinguish much between government and religion). It is also equally possible for a spacestead to achieve equal or greater degrees of immorality than a space colony, in my humble opinion however, it’s the most pragmatic safe guard against institutionalized human rights violations and an inevitable war of rebellion to interstellar colonialization.
Mr. Rothblatt has outlined several very important points here, and I realize now in retrospect that the paternalism and patriarchalism that I noted in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II as implicitly figuring in many of the 100YSS presentations might also be cast in terms of colonialism — one of the most pernicious and perennial rationalizations of colonialism being that of a benign presence that oversees and attends to the moral edification of the residents of the colony.
Mr. Rothblatt is exactly right to point to the danger of space settlements being primarily economically motivated and therefore lacking self-governance and therefore control over policies, practices, and procedures. We have an image of this danger in the science fiction film Outland, which depicts a space mining settlement as a “company town” with all that implies. This is not a model of development that we should want to extend to the human future in space. The danger of close Earth control over space settlements what I had in mind when I previously opined that it would be unrealistic to think that controlling powers on the Earth could reach out over space and time to shape the lives of those who would be, by then, living under very different conditions.
I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Rothblatt that spacesteading need not define a particular social structure. In the event of multiple settlements in space, I surely hope that we will see a hundred flowers bloom in terms of the diversity of social systems that will be attempted. The political and social experimentation with novel (and perhaps also not-so-novel) systems of governance under new and unprecedented conditions for human beings will be, I think, very healthy for our species and its continued social development. Something genuinely new may come about as the result of social experimentation in parallel with spacesteading, and this ought to be very exciting for any political philosopher.
The social and political diversity of space settlements — not to mention on long distance generational starships — may also, as Mr. Rothblatt points out, be the best safeguard against rebellion and militancy. Any quasi-colonial scenario immediately suggests the possibility of colonists at a great distance from the political center choosing to assert their independence even if this is denied them officially. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a scenario not resulting in violent separatism.
As the human future in space slowly and steady grows in scope, it will become increasingly evident that what Thomas Paine said of the relationship between Britain and its American colonies — using an astronomical metaphor no less — must also be true of the Earth and those communities that come to be established off the surface of the Earth:
“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”
The Earth is an island in space. In time, we will come to see it as such, and we will be forced to recognize that this small planet, as beautiful as it is, is but a fragment of the cosmos, and that space must belong to itself and not to the earth.
I would like the thank Mr. Rothblatt for his response, which highlights so many important issues for the social future of humanity in space.
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3 September 2012
A Reflection for Labor Day
Foucault is perhaps most remembered for his early books, written in a very dense and at times elusive style, which constitute what have been called “critiques of historical reason.” Foucault takes up the ideas of madness, the clinic, prisons, philology, biology, political economy, and eventually (later on) sexuality, providing a staggering wealth of documentation from original source materials, even while one understands that these details are only there to serve a grand plan that is never made quite explicit. I have previously quoted the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who characterized Foucault’s style as, “sweeping summary with eccentric detail” (cf. Foucault’s Formalism). Foucault’s effort owes much to Nietzsche’s earlier efforts to formulate what he called a genealogy of morals. Foucault said that, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary,” but for Nietzsche it was colorful, inventive, and exciting, and I think these are also qualities that made Foucault’s intellectual genealogies so interesting.
Since Foucault’s fascinating genealogies have appeared, others have taken up the task and gone on to write genealogies of all manner of historical phenomena that had, until recently, been regarded as largely unproblematic. Foucault was the next great “master of suspicion” after Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud (as identified by Paul Ricoeur), and Foucault’s influence has spawned suspicion enough to call into question every received institution of Western civilization. From this perspective, Foucault can be seen as part of a reaction against progressive Whiggish history more than as a continental embodiment of the largely Anglo-American history of ideas, to which genealogy is related, but only distantly.
I wonder if any of Foucault’s followers has written a genealogy of labor — certainly it would be a rich field of study. Foucault discussed labor in his The Order of Things, and even called one chapter of this “Labor, Life, Language,” but Foucault takes up labor from the stand point of the discourse of political economy and not from the stand point of the labor movement. I started thinking of this today when I was writing a post on my other blog about the labor movement in recognition of Labor Day, A Celebration of the American Laborer. A genealogy of labor that brought sweeping summary with eccentric detail to the gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary work of a critique of the historical reason as it underlies the labor movement would be a real achievement, and something that someone ought to take up if they haven’t already done so.
In that post I discussed my discomfiture with labor slogans and the labor movement generally speaking. I did not do justice to my chosen topic because there is so much more to say, but while I was struggling with setting limits to how far I would go in attempting to understand the social semiotics that characterize labor today, which is to say labor in industrial-technological civilization, I realized how easily this topic would play into a Foucauldian critique.
Foucault’s constant drumbeat throughout his critiques of historical reason is that the institutions of contemporary society that we have become accustomed to seeing as expressions of an emerging and growing humanitarianism are rather methodologies of control, and the professionalized discourses in which they are formulated — whether psychiatry or economics or penology — are in fact discourses of power that serve to channel privilege within a society. Although Foucault distinguished himself among philosophers of his generation by sedulously maintaining his distance from Marxism, it would be difficult to imagine a more thorough-going Marxist critique of the oppression of the masses than that formulated by Foucault.
The labor movement has been dominated, intellectually speaking, by those on the left coming from a Marxist perspective (even if, in the US, they could not for obvious socio-political reasons make their Marxism explicit), and as such one ought to expect the labor movement to be part of the critique of power relations in the industrialized world, but the labor movement has itself become a part of that industrial-technological establishment and now would rightly be subject itself to a critique for its professionalized discourse of labor relations and worker protections. The AFL-CIO campaign Work Connects Us All, which I just mentioned on my other blog, is a perfect example of this.
While the labor movement is part of the Marxist tradition as I mentioned above, it is also part of the humanist tradition. In so far as the labor movement is part of that broad social movement that seeks to humanize the institutions of industrialized society, it is vulnerable to the same critique that Foucault leveled against “humane” psychiatry, mental institutions, clinics, and prisons. Just as utopian dreams usually issue in dystopian nightmares, so too humanitarian good intentions more often than not issue in dehumanizing, depersonalizing policies. The “humane” workplace is more and more coming to resemble those other institutions, what Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” that interested Foucault.
In the attempt to make people feel involved, connected, and important by way of their labor, the labor movement must inevitably treat human beings as laborers, and it may well be that, even though the working class spends the greater part of its time engaged in alienated labor, and that this engagement necessarily has a formative influence on life and personality, workers might not want to be identified with their work or reduced to their labor. Some may even feel that this identification with a task they perform in exchange for financial compensation is an insult and slight in view of their other talents and abilities. Certainly not all, but some.
The contemporary workplace has become a regime of observation and documentation and regimentation far more encompassing than Bentham’s panoptican, which latter drew Foucault’s attention and has been a consistent point of reference for Foucault’s followers ever since (I wrote about the panopticon in A Flock of Drones). The panopticon only observed individuals at a particular moment; the regime of workplace surveillance now encompasses the life of the individual entire, from cradle to grave, and in so doing eliminates the personal life. An individual’s history before being employed may be investigated, their pictures and statements on social media examined, they will likely be tested for drugs that have nothing whatsoever to do with their performance on the job, their e-mail, web browsing, and phone calls while working may be monitored, and so long as they are employed they will continued to be monitored on the job and off the job, to whatever invasive extent sanctioned by the professionalized legal discourses constructed as a means to relieve individuals of the responsibility for their own lives. (I’m sure Freud would have had something interesting to say about the professional classes monitoring the urination of the working classes.) Of course, all of these things are done in the name of safety and order and the well-being of all — but aren’t they always?
What has the labor movement done about this unprecedented invasion of privacy? Nothing. What has the labor movement done about the extirpation of the private life? It has contributed to it, by identifying the private life with work, job, career, and professional status. The labor movement has only served to facilitate the institutionalized regimentation of worker’s lives, acting as agents for the powers that be, because they obtain their living by the same means as the owners and the managers they affect to confront.
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