Friday


Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.

Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.

What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.

In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.

Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.

The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.

During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.

The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.

The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.

In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.

By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.

Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012

Friday


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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