Blighted Lives

8 December 2011


Virginia Woolf in her essay A Room of One’s Own made the point that if women were to write fiction, they needed to have a room of their own. In a room of one’s own, one has a certain freedom that is a necessary condition of producing great literature. Woolf wrote of women writers:

“…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since her pin money, which depended on the goodwill of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France, from the separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?”

Of course, both women and men who write experience the incredulous guffaw and the pervasive attitude of, “Write? What’s the good of your writing?” Woolf’s concern here, however, is with the particular trials and tribulations of woman who write, so we will follow her in this. Later the same essay Woolf discusses how the writing of some women novelists was marred by their particular circumstances. Here is a passage that I quoted in Folded, Spindled, Mutilated in which Woolf described how the life of the heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is stunted and deformed because of the social circumstances of the time in which the novel was written. That is to say, the structures of everyday life were, for Charlotte Brontë, oppressive. Woolf made a comparison between Tolstoy and Brontë (as well as George Eliot):

“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books. Had Tolstoi lived at the Priory in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world,’ however edifying the moral lesson, he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”

Of Brontë herself Woolf wrote:

“…one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?”

In other words, Brontë’s life was blighted, and her writing also consequently blighted, by the social circumstances of her time and place, such that a woman’s life — and especially the life of the mind — must be thwarted and cannot then come to the maturity of genius.

The prejudice against the worldly accomplishments of women, which is slowly being pushed into the past in the most advanced industrialized nation-states, is essentially an argument that the irresponsible use of power blights the lives of individuals. I agree with this. I believe that this is true. Herman Melville gives the argument for men’s lives being blighted by the arbitrary exercise of power in his White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War. Moreover, I believe that the damage caused by the arbitrary exercise of power can be generalized beyond gender and even beyond the individual.

Generally speaking, the irresponsible exercise of power can blight entire societies, and not merely the lives of individuals. Furthermore, the blight of power is universal, and is found among all ideological movements. I have observed elsewhere (though I can’t recall exactly where) that all societies, regardless of ideology, are administered by a small elite class; this is a universal structure of settled human societies, though human beings are so tendentious in their understanding that they tend to only see the corruption on the other side of the fence, and not to notice their own corruption.

The blight of power is a function of the universal existence of an elite empowered class in all settled societies, since it is the elite class the has power and therefore has the opportunity to misuse power. I do not doubt for a moment that the poor and disenfranchised would misuse power also if it came into their hands. In fact, this is exactly what we see in revolutions, when one regime is replaced by another, but nothing changes in essentials; it is simply the replacement of one elite class by another.

To understand the ideological neutrality of the blight of power we can point to two contrary economic programs, privatization and nationalization. Generally speaking, the ideological right favors privatization, in which state and public assets are sold to private companies or individuals, while the ideological left favors nationalization, in which private companies or the assets of individuals are taken over by the state and run on behalf of the public.

Both privatization and nationalization have been severely blighted through manipulation by powerful individuals who employ these economic processes for the aggrandizement and enrichment of themselves, their families, and their cronies.

There are arguments to be made on both sides of both questions, privatization and nationalization. Each has its pros and cons; both, when considered in the abstract, have certain advantages. But the world is not an abstract place, and the concrete relationships of real individuals affect how privatization initiatives or nationalization initiatives are carried out in detail. And, as we all know, the devil is in the details.

The actual fact of privatization has meant that wealthy and well-connected individuals in already impoverished nation-states have been sold state assets at below market value, and as a result they have further enriched themselves at the public expense. This is unconscionable, but no more unconscionable than the corruption that attends nationalization. The actual fact of nationalization has been that the seizure of private assets by the state has been used punitively, and, once seized, the control of these assets is then placed in the hands of regime members or regime cronies. Technically, they may not own anything, but they do get to enjoy the use of it, and, as we have seen, their children unusually inherit the right to use it also.

The point here is that whether you are pursuing leftist-inspired economic reforms or rightist-inspired economic reforms, in either case they will be hijacked by those in possession of institutionalized power and that entire societies, and not only individuals, will suffer from blighted lives as a consequence of this particular corruption. Thus economic reforms pursued under circumstances in which institutionalized power possessed impunity are likely to be counter-productive regardless of the nature of the reforms themselves. Any reform is secondary to the institution responsible for the reform.

I don’t think that many would argue with me that lives are blighted by the arbitrary exercise of power, whether individuals lives, or the lives of classes of individuals, or of entire societies. But what is the root of this pervasive misuse of power?

In his Industrial Society and its Future, Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) argues that human beings respond to something that he calls “the power process.” Here is how he describes it:

Human beings have a need (probably based in
biology) for something that we will call the “power process.” This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clearcut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later (paragraphs 42-44).
section 33

If the power process is a human universal, as Kaczynski posits (that is to say, if the power process is characteristic of human nature), then it is tautological that a power elite will use its unique position in society to act out the power process with the state machinery at its command (and therefore on a very large scale), while other individuals work through the power process at more personal levels.

Kaczynski suggests that the power process may be biologically based, and it is not difficult to formulate an argument from evolutionary psychology that would show the differential survival and reproductive value of having something like the power process as an evolved behavioral mechanism of human beings. Individuals who respond to a challenge with an instinctive drive to surmount the challenge and move on to the next are far more likely to leave offspring than individuals who do not so respond

To formulate the power process in terms of a challenge makes obvious the connection to Toynbee’s theory of challenge and response, i.e., that civilizations thrive when they are faced with challenges that are sufficiently difficult that they spur innovation but not so difficult that they cannot be overcome. In other words, the power process is the challenge and response mechanism at a microscopic level (or perhaps a micro-temporal level) while challenge and response as conceived by Toynbee is the power process for civilizations, i.e., a macroscopic power process, or macro-temporal power process.

However, when we approach the power process by way of considering the lives that are blighted by the exercise of the power process, we see that the playing out of the power process comes at a cost. Presumably, every individual (or, at least, most individuals) are involved in the power process, in which case individuals are seeking the satisfy the power process in the teeth of peers simultaneously seeking to satisfy the power process. In this case, the power process is simply another name for competition, and in competition for scarce resources natural selection comes into play.

We can extrapolate the power process upward from its microscopic point of origin throughout the whole of metaphysical ecology, or, if you prefer, we can extrapolate the challenge and response mechanism downward from its macroscopic point of origin throughout the whole of metaphysical ecology. Either formulation simply represents an alternative perspective: top-down or bottom-up. Since I have written elsewhere that the constructivist perspective is bottom-up while the non-constructive perspective is top-down, there is a sense in which the challenge and response mechanism is a top-down conception of competition, while the power process is a non-constructive conception of competition.

In any case, in view of the lives blighted by competition, we must posit that the over all effect of the power process or of the challenge and response mechanism is conducive to the survival and reproduction success of the species, even if there are individual exceptions. And, since we have seen the lives are blighted regardless of ideology, it is irresponsible (and disingenuous) to formulate an argument of immiserization (whether economic immiserization or spiritual immiserization) when we can demonstrate that blighted lives are an inevitable result of a process that is blind to ideological orientation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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