One of the most annoying constructions of contemporary sociology is Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class.” Florida isn’t necessarily wrong in his claims, and indeed I am sympathetic to some of his arguments, though much of his analysis turns upon taking a naïve conception of creativity and moving the goal posts so that this intuitive conception of creativity comes to be bestowed upon patently uncreative individuals who pad the ranks of the corporate hierarchy. By marginalizing a “Bohemian” creative class and putting at the center of his analysis the suits who congratulate themselves on being creative, he has arguably misconstrued the sources of creativity in society, but that is not what I want to focus on today.

Here is how Florida defines his “creative class”:

“I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.”

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, second edition, pp. 8-9

Florida’s use of the phrase “high human capital individuals” (employed throughout his book) begs the question as to who exactly are the low human capital individuals. Needless to say, formulations like this are self-congratulatory to the point of delusion, because no one who uses the phrase “high human capital individuals” believes themselves to be anything other than a high human capital individual. Here Nietzsche is relevant, though what he said of philosophers must now be applied to sociology: It has gradually become clear to me what every great social science up till now has consisted of — namely, the personal confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious memoir.

We need not employ Florida’s annoying formulations. Let’s consider another approach to essentially the same idea. Take, for example, Marx’s version of the “creative class”:

“Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, London et al.: Penguin, 1976, p. 1044

Clearly, Marx here evinces no romantic notions of the creative genius in isolation, praising the Leipzig hack over the genius of Milton. And this is Florida’s conception of “creativity” in a nutshell, nearly indistinguishable from “productivity” as used in contemporary economics. One can imagine in one’s mind’s eye Richard Florida reading this passage from Marx and nodding his head with an odd grin on his face.

Suit-and-tie guys who are “knowledge workers” in their own imaginations, but in who are in reality time-servers in a corporate hierarchy, are the members of the “creative class” who are fulfilling the function that Marx assigned to the Leipzig hack. In other words, the same kind of people who, fifty years ago would have been reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, are the same people who still today are reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but now they fancy themselves to be part of the “creative class” and they take micro-doses of LSD when they go to Burning Man each year to “unleash” their creativity.

But this is exactly the kind of “creative class” that the global economy wants and needs; Marx had put his finger on something important when he raised the Leipzig hack over Milton. The less creative you are, and the more you have adapted yourself to be a creature of the institutions you are serving, the more successful you will be (according to conventional measures of success) and the more money you will make.

The pedestrian fact of the matter is that industry — whether something as flashy as the film industry or something as prosaic as the energy industry — advances mediocrities to its top positions. Usually the top people are mediocrities with some redeeming qualities, or a hint of limited talent, but still mediocrities. The truly creative types know that mediocrities are being advanced beyond them and taking the top positions in the industry, and that there is nothing that they can do about this. These truly creative types aren’t living the life of the one percent; indeed, they aren’t living the life the ten percent. Most of them make less than six figures, and there are probably many plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and truck drivers who make a lot more than them, and who have no massive college debt hanging over their heads.

The Bohemian creatives, the ones actually creating things, find themselves in the position of performing alienated labor at the behest of their corporate masters, who neither understand nor appreciate them. Having failed to learn one of the simplest lessons in life — that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar — the lowest strata of the creative class spew their resentment at every opportunity. (The dirtbag left today might be thought of as part of a Bohemian fringe of creative types, though at the political end of the creative spectrum.) They are so convinced of their own virtue that they are unable to see or to comprehend that they themselves have become the bitter, punitive gatekeepers that as “creatives” they presume to despise.

Resentment, it seems, flows uphill. By creating a permanently resentful underclass, which is the basis of the entirety of society (because the underclass have the jobs that keep industrialized civilization functioning), the resentful underclass creates a popular culture derived from this pervasive resentment, and this pervasive popular culture resentment eventually finds its way into the routines of comedians, into television, into films, and ultimately into élite cultural institutions, which imagine themselves setting the cultural and aesthetic agenda, but which in fact respond like reactionaries to the authentic energies of the lower classes.

The phenomenon of resentment flowing uphill manifests itself powerfully among the “creative class.” As we have seen, the most creative members of the creative class experience the appearance of fame but the financial reality of entry-level positions, so that they belong to the permanent underclass and its bitterly resentful view of the world, which is a view of the world from the bottom up. They are well aware of their low financial status, and that they do not share in the rewards of the uncreative members of the “creative class.”

Ultimately, the resentment of the creative class and the bourgeoisie becomes, over time, the resentment of the élites, and this is when we know that society is rotten from top to bottom. When those who have been given every advantage and every preferment in life are bitter and angry about their world, clearly something has gone off the rails. Of course, the resentment of the élites is expressed in a distinctive way, filtered through their thinly-veiled dog whistles and symbols, but not only is it there to be seen, as clear as day, but also pervasively present throughout the institutions that they superintend.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to rule the world and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the masses; more than this, one must have the acquiescence of those masses in their subjection to the rule of élites. Mere compliance and conformity is not enough; there is also to be some formal recognition that the élites deserve their status and are making the best choices for the rest of us. (We live in a meritocracy, right?) When this recognition is not forthcoming, we glimpse the resentment of the élites for those they fancy the low human capital individuals.

It is a fascinating commentary on the resentment of the élites who grow out of a “creative class” that Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment crucially turns upon creativity:

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye — this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, section 10

This is a dialectic of creativity, in which creativity has nothing to work on, so it works on nothing — ressentiment is the creation of new values from nothing. It is an ex nihilo morality par excellence. Nietzsche once wrote of the finest flower of ressentiment, as related by Walter Kaufmann:

“Among the exceedingly few discoveries made in recent times concerning the origin of moral value judgments, Friedrich Nietzsche’s discovery of ressentiment as the source of such value judgments is the most profound, even if his more specific claim that Christian morality and in particular Christian love are the finest ‘flower of resssentiment’ should turn out to be false.”

From Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals

Today our finest flower of ressentiment is the resentful élite who rule over us with a bad conscience — the creative class, the powerful, the educated, the well connected, the wealthy — and who never tire of reminding us of how deeply we have disappointed them. This is the kind of contempt that is exhibited when urbanites speak of “white trash” or some such similar social construct that expresses the bitter hatred of the privileged for the downtrodden. Both in the US and the UK, the political parties that formerly represented the interests of the working classes have been transformed in the past half century into parties that represent urbanized professionals, and they do not even bother to veil their contempt for the working class, who now appear to them as a distasteful embarrassment at best, a contemptible mass at worse, fit only to be ridiculed and despised.

In a Nietzschean analysis, one would expect that it would be the creative few who would be de facto Übermenschen, and so possessed of the virtues of the Übermensch — or, if you prefer, the virtù of the Übermensch — therefore these few would be among the least resentful elements in society, because the Übermensch expends his energies. If we were a society dominated by a truly creative class, we should be a society and an economy of supermen, creating new values and spontaneously releasing any pent up energies, but it is ressentiment that rules the present. Why?

The artificiality of our institutions, which demands that the ruling élites must bend the knee to democratic forms and make a pretense to upholding the rule of law that, in theory, binds their actions no less than ours, constitutes the hostile external world against which the ruling élites react, the Other that is Outside and Different. The creative deed of the élites of the creative class is its emphatic “No!” directed against the world from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Robbed of triumphant affirmation, they must rule without appearing to rule, and the reality of power coupled with its seeming denial is creating new values even now, though these are values that only can be savored in submerged and secret places — that is to say, in the hearts of the members of the creative class.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Discord Invitation

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Review of Parts I and II

In Part I we began to examine the institutional structure of civilization, following a schema that I have elsewhere developed and have applied to spacefaring (cf. Indifferently Spacefaring Civilizations), to science (Science in a Scientific Civilization), and virtual worlds (cf. Virtual Optimization as a Civilizational Imperative), such that a civilization is an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project. According to this schema, a properly technological civilization is a civilization that takes technology as its central project. However, this is not how “technological civilization” is most commonly used, so to try to get at what people actually mean when they invoke “technological civilization” it is necessary to dig a bit deeper.

In Part II we began to examine some of the developmental characteristics of technological civilization, introducing the ideas of the prehistory of technology, Darwin’s thesis on the origin of civilization, Gibbon’s thesis on the continuity of technology, and what archaeologists call a “horizon.” We arrived at a provisional characterization of technological civilization such that a technological civilization represents the horizon of industrialized technologies of the industrial revolution. This, however, is inadequate because circular: if we cannot say what industrialized technologies are, and do not explicitly differentiate industrialized technologies from other technologies (including the technologies that preceded the industrial revolution), this characterization of technological civilization is empty.

Second Thoughts on Technological Civilization

Since posting Part II I have done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about the theoretical problems posed by technological civilization, and this effort has yielded me considerable clarification, but it has also taken me in a direction that is a bit different from how I planned to develop the concept of technological civilization when I started this series. The way I intended to develop the concept was not especially elegant (and I knew this to be the case, hence the amount of time I spent trying to clarify my conception), whereas now I have a fairly simple and straight-forward way to characterize technological civilization within the model of civilization I have already developed.

As I previously argued, a properly technological civilization is a civilization that takes technology as its central project. But technology precedes human civilization and is pervasive in human experience, so what exactly is meant by a civilization taking technology as its central project? Does this mean that some particular technology is the central project of a civilization, or some class of technologies, presumably related to each other by some common properties, or does it mean all technologies, i.e., technology as an end to itself, is to be the central project of a technological civilization? This latter conception would yield a civilization of engineers, which is entirely possible, but it is also unsatisfying because what distinguishes technology is its utility, so that making technology an end in itself would mean taking a means to an end as an end in itself. A civilization so constituted would be likely to drift and not maintain a strong sense of direction, ultimately issuing in failure.

I will, then, continue to refer to a properly technological civilization as one that takes technology as its central project, and I will allow that such a civilization is at least possible, whether or not it has been instantiated on Earth. There is, however, another way in which a civilization can be a technological civilization, but for an exposition of this we must return to one the sources of my definition of civilization, which is the Marxian distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure (which latter I have preferred to call the intellectual superstructure).

American anthropologist Robert Redfield made a distinction between the technical order and the moral order.

The Marxian Distinction and a Redfieldian Distinction

Marx made his infrastructure/superstructure distinction explicit in only a couple of passages of which I am aware, but the distinction is pervasively present throughout Marx’s writings. Here is the first of the two passages from Marx in which the distinction is made explicit:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

Karl Marx, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12.

Here is the second such passage of which I am aware:

“Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State. The word ‘civil society’ (burgerliche Gesellschaft) emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Since Marx’s writings are rather long-winded and not very clear, I won’t try to quote any long passages in which the distinction is implicit but not made as explicit as in the above passages. If the reader would like to penetrate more deeply into this, there is a voluminous amount of Marx scholarship, as well as the writings of Marx himself, with which you can engage.

I have been using this Marxian terminology for lack of anything better, and also because I found the distinction made explicit in Marx before I found it elsewhere. The idea implicit in the distinction, however, is fairly common, and indeed I myself wrote a couple of blog posts some years ago, The Civilization of the Hand and The Civilization of the Mind, which implicitly makes the same distinction: the civilization of the hand is the economic infrastructure while the civilization of the mind is the intellectual infrastructure.

More recently I have come across a similar distinction in the writings of the American anthropologist Robert Redfield, who makes a distinction between the technical order and the moral order. Here is Redfield’s distinction:

“Technical order and moral order name two contrasting aspects of all human societies. The phrases stand for two distinguishable ways in which the activities of men are co-ordinated. As used by C. H. Cooley and R. E. Park, ‘the moral order’ refers to the organization of human sentiments into judgments as to what is right… The technical order is that order which results from mutual usefulness, from deliberate coercion, or from the mere utilization of the same means.”

Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and its Transformations, Ithaca, New York: Great Seal Books, 1953, pp. 20-21

Redfield’s exposition of this distinction goes on for several pages, so that the above quotation is only partly representative of his full exposition. The reader is urged to read Redfield’s book in its entirety in order to get a good sense of how he uses these terms (if not the whole book, at least read the first chapter, “Human Society before the Urban Revolution,” implicitly referencing V. Gordon Childe on the urban revolution).

While Redfield’s distinction is not precisely the same as Marx’s distinction, the two at least partially coincide, and I will therefore occasionally adopt Redfield’s terminology of the technical order and the moral order to indicate the same distinction in the institutional structure of civilization that I have heretofore identified as the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.

Our old friend Karl Marx continues to haunt us — and to influence us.

The Marxian Thesis

In my presentation at the 2015 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I discussed the Marxian distinction outlined above and noted that Marx maintained that the economic infrastructure determines the intellectual superstructure. However, this is only one possible implementation of the distinction that Marx set up, and I noted in my talk that there might be civilizations in which the intellectual superstructure determined the economic infrastructure, and still other civilizations in which there was a mutual causality operating in both directions.

Now I realize that Marx, in theorizing the new industrial civilization to which he was witness, was unwittingly characterizing technological civilization and applying the structures that he saw in the civilization of the industrial revolution to all human societies, which I take to be an illicit extrapolation. With this in mind I am going to distinguish the Marxian Thesis on Civilization—or, more briefly, the Marxian Thesis—as the thesis that infrastructure determines superstructure. In Redfield’s language, this becomes the thesis that the technical order determines the moral order.

It is the Marxian Theses that distinguishes another form of technological civilization in addition to properly technological civilization. That is to say, I will identify as a technological civilization simpliciter (and in contradistinction to a properly technological civilization) those civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis, in which the moral order is determined by the technical order. And, I think, if we dig into this more deeply we will find that this usage accords with casual usage of “technological civilization” in a way that properly technological civilizations do not precisely accord with popular usage.

Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss historian

The Burckhardtian Thesis

The Marxian Thesis immediately implies the complementary thesis, which I will call the Burckhardtian Thesis on Civilization, or, more briefly, the Burckhardtian Thesis, named after the famous Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. While Burckhardt did not address the above distinction in his writings (Burckhardt’s most famous book is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), he did write a book called Force and Freedom: An Interpretation of History, in which he identified the “three powers” that shape human society as being the state, religion, and culture. Culture, moreover, Burckhardt wrote:

“…is the sum of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life and as an expression of spiritual and moral life—all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and sciences.”

Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom, New York: Meridian Books, 1955, pp. 95-96

Friedrich Rapp wrote that Burckhardt’s book Force and Freedom

“…demonstrates that a competent world history can be written with virtually no reference to technology. For him, the historical process is determined by the interaction of three factors: the state, religion, and culture.”

Friedrich Rapp, Analytical Philosophy of Technology, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1981, p. 30.

This is close enough to making the technical order derivative of the moral order that I will use Burckhardt’s name to identify the Burckhardtian Thesis in contrast to the Marxian Thesis. (Careful scholars of Burckhardt — who are not likely to read my blog — may object to my usage here, but I am only invoking Burckhardt symbolically, and not making any claim about the argument of his works.)

Redfield implicitly acknowledges the Burckhardtian thesis to hold for pre-modern societies:

“In folk societies the moral order predominates over the technical order. It is not possible, however, simply to reverse this statement and declare that in civilizations the technical order predominates over the moral. In civilization the technical order certainly becomes great. But we cannot truthfully say that in civilization the moral order becomes small. There are ways in civilization in which the moral order takes on new greatness. In civilization the relations between the two orders are varying and complex.”

Ibid., p. 24

This passage is perhaps more representative of Redfield than that which I quoted above. Redfield here makes an implicit distinction between folk societies and civilizations, attributing the moral order’s predominance over the technical order to folk society and implicitly denying it to civilization, but he also allows that civilizations may take varying forms, so I don’t take this passage to outright contradiction the interpretation I am here giving to Redfield’s distinction. Redfield’s special object of study, especially in his early years of anthropological fieldwork, was folk society, and many of the societies he identifies as such I would identify as the hinterlands of agricultural civilizations. (I will go into this in more detail in a future post.)

The remaining possibility, that the technical order and the moral order mutually influence each other, I will for lack of a better name at present call the Interaction Thesis on Civilization (though if I can find something like an exposition of this idea already set down, I will rename the Interaction Thesis). The null case, which is the fourth permutation, is when neither the technical order determines the moral order nor the moral order determines the technical order. In this case, there is, according to my definition, no civilization.

Note the resemblance of this way of thinking about civilization to my elaboration some years ago of the Platonic theory of being (cf. Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being). Plato held that the definition of being is the power to affect or be affected. I have observed that this idea has four permutations:

1) the power to affect without being affected

2) the power to be affected without the power to affect

3) the power both to affect and be affected by, and

4) the null case, which is to be neither affected nor to affect

I take the null case to coincide with non-being, in the same way that I take a social context in which the technical order neither affects or is affected by the moral order, and vice versa, which is a case of non-civilization, i.e., the non-being of civilization. This adds an ontological dimension to the idea of civilization that goes beyond that which I discussed in The Being of Civilization.

ca. 1940s, USA — Computer operators program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by adjusting rows of switches. — Image by © CORBIS

Two Fundamental Kinds of Civilization

Because of the distinctive institutional structure of civilization that follows from my model, the particular direction of development that a civilization takes can take on an added significance when this developmental direction coincides with some structural feature of civilization. Thus technological civilization (other than properly technological civilization) involves the technical order in a way that makes the technical order — already a feature of civilization — dominant. The contrary case is that of a civilization that involves the moral order in a way that makes the moral order — again, already a feature of civilization — dominant. Roughly, this describes civilization prior to the industrial revolution.

Following this line of reasoning, there are two primary types of civilization: the spiritual and the technical. This fundamental division follows from the institutional structure of civilization. The primarily spiritual form of civilization (in which the moral order largely determines the technical order) dominated from the earliest emergence of civilization up to the industrial revolution. The primarily technological form of civilization (in which the technical order determines the moral order), while with many intimations in earlier history, only decisively emerged with the industrial revolution. Thus technological civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon, and has far less of an historical record than primarily spiritual civilizations, which have, in some cases, histories measurable in the thousands of years.

The technical and spiritual forms of civilization may be conceived as idealized endpoints of a continuum, along which most civilizations can be located, either closer to the technical end or closer to the spiritual end. Those civilizations that embody the Interaction Thesis would be located near the middle of this continuum, being equally constituted by the moral order and the technical order. But if such a continuum be denied, civilizations that embody the Interaction Thesis may constitute a third fundamental kind of civilization.

There also may be a third primary type of civilization that corresponds to a structural alignment with the central project, but since my model of civilization already assumes that both the technical order and the moral order will be aligned with the central project, this doesn’t seem to point to another distinctive kind of civilization. However, I have not yet fully thought this through, and I may yet be able to delineate a third fundamental form of civilization. This remains an open area of research in the theory of civilization, and I will continue to question my formulations relative to this problem until I am satisfied I have achieved sufficient clarity on the matter.

Looking Ahead to Part IV

Having adopted this new perspective on technological civilization that I have outlined above, which I consider to be a significant clarification, I will go back through the notes of what I had planned to say about technological civilization prior to this clarification and attempt to reformulate what can be reformulated, and toss out that which is no longer relevant or helpful in coming to an understanding of what is distinctive about technological civilization.

My plan is to penetrate more deeply (and more systematically) into the development of technological civilization, building on the discussion I started in Part II, but now extending it in the light of the concept of technological civilization given here in Part III. In order to do this, further distinctions and elaborations to my model of civilization will be necessary, so there is more theory of civilization to come, using the particular example of technological civilization as a springboard for the exposition of concepts of civilization more generally applicable not only to technological civilization, but also to non-technological civilizations.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Yesterday in Marxist Eschatology I wrote:

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.

While on my other blog in Marx and Fukuyama I wrote:

With Marx, we can identify a “bend in the road” of history at which point Marx might be proved right or wrong. For some people — wrongly to my mind — this point was identified as the end of the Cold War. To my mind, it is the full industrialization of the world’s economy. Thus Marx’s thesis has the virtue of falsification.

This calls for a little clarification, since if interpreted uncharitably it might be found contradictory for Marxism to be a perennial idea and to be falsifiable, since what distinguishes a perennial idea is that it is not falsifiable — at least, not in a robust sense of falsification.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who formulated falsifiability as a criterion of scientificity (I’m not certain he was the first, be he has definitely been the most influential in advancing the idea of falsifiability, especially in contradistinction to the logical positivist emphasis on the verifiability criterion), and he discussed Marx at some length. Here’s nice summary from one of Popper’s later works:

“As I pointed out in my Open Society, one may regard Marx’s theory as refuted by events that occurred during the Russian Revolution. According to Marx the revolutionary changes start at the bottom, as it were: means of production change first, then social conditions of production, then political power, and ultimately ideological beliefs, which change last. But in the Russian Revolution the political power changed first, and then the ideology (Dictatorship plus Electrification) began to change the social conditions and the means of production from the top. The reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution to evade this falsification immunized it against further attacks, transforming it into the vulgar-Marxist (or socioanalytic) theory which tells us that the ‘economic motive’ and the class struggle pervade social life.”

Karl Popper, Unended Quest, “Early Studies,” p. 45

I should point out that I agree with Popper’s arguments, and that Marxism construed in the narrow sense that Popper construed it was falsified by the events of the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s “weakest link of capitalism” theory was instrumental in the reinterpretation of Marxism that Popper mentioned. Beyond Lenin, Mao made even more radical changes by shifting the focus from the industrial proletariat to the agricultural peasant. It is a testament to the extent to which the twentieth century was not fully industrialized that it was Maoism rather than Marxism or Leninism that was the form of communism that reached the masses during the last century.

However, I think that there is a species of Marxism that lies between Popper’s narrowly conceived Marxism and the vulgar Marxism reinterpreted in the light of apparent falsification, and this is a Marxism that has been generalized beyond the historically specific conditions of the Russian Revolution, and even beyond the Cold War, which had almost nothing to do with democracy or communism and almost everything to do with national rivalry and the great game of power politics.

I have called a generalized Marxism a species of Marxism, and herein lies to clue to the distinction between Marxism and a perennial idea in the strict sense. Marxism (of one variety or another) is a species that falls under the genera of collectivist political thought. The latter — collectivist political thought — is a perennial idea, and lies beyond falsification. It is neither true nor false, but an ongoing influence, just like its implied contrary, which is individualist political thought. Individualism also lies beyond falsification, and is neither true nor false but remains an ongoing influence in human affairs.

Most forms of capitalism are individualist in orientation, though not all: oligarchical capitalist societies (like medieval Venice) had little to do with individualism. Thus a generalization of capitalism does not always lead to individualism. A generalization of capitalism, depending on its subtle differences in tone of market activity from one society to another, may lead to individualism, but it may also lead to a profoundly hierarchical crony capitalism, or to some other socio-economic formation.

Speaking generally for ideas, and not just communism and capitalism, and indeed not just political and economic ideas but all ideas, the generalization of an historically situated and therefore specific idea usually leads to a perennial idea if the generalization is sufficiently radical. The generalization of capitalism may or may not lead to individualism, but it will eventually lead to some perennial idea which lies beyond falsification, whether that idea is patriarchalism or something else. The generalization of Marxism, I think, leads more directly to a perennial form of collectivist thought, which at its greatest reach of generality is scarcely distinguishable from a vague sentimental connection to others.

The species of Marxism that I have posited — midway between Marxism narrowly conceived and Marxism generalized to the point of a vague feeling of cooperative common cause — is falsifiable, but it is not falsifiable by experiment. It is only falsifiable by history. It shares this property with other theses in the philosophy of history. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between the natural sciences and at least some of the historical sciences: theses in some of the historical sciences are falsifiable, but they are not falsifiable on demand. One can only wait and see if they are eventually falsified. With the passage of time the inductive evidence of an unfalsifiable thesis in the philosophy of history increases, but is never confirmed. Thus the philosophy of history, contrary to most expectations, is the most science-like of the branches of philosophy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012


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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Grand Strategy Annex

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I have written several posts on human nature, such as it is (or isn’t), and even have human nature as a category. In a post simply titled Human Nature I considered the various views of Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. There I quoted several passages of Thucydides that are classic statements on human nature, I considered Sartre’s explicit skepticism, such that “there is no human nature that we can take as foundational,” and lastly I discussed Mill’s organic metaphor in which he compared human nature to a tree, “which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides.” More recently in Agents and Sufferants I returned to Thucydides to consider human nature in terms of its agency.

Yet more recently I have learned that distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written a short book on human nature, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, with the wonderful subtitle, with reflections on the long history of hierarchy, equality and the sublimation of anarchy in the West, and comparative notes on other conceptions of the human condition. I don’t have a copy of this yet, so I am at the mercy of the reviews. The title makes it sound as though Sahlins is a human nature skeptic as thorough as Sartre, but a review says that Sahlins rejects a Hobbesian account of human nature as savage and violent in favor of, “the one truly universal character of human sociality: namely, symbolically constructed kinship relations.” I hope to read the book for myself, but this encounter with another suggestion of human nature skepticism provoked me to further thought.

In addition to several posts about human nature I have also repeatedly quoted a line from Marx, that is one of my favorites:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

This Marxian reference to men making their own history ties in with my use of Ortega y Gasset’s line — Man has not an essence but a history — that I quoted in my Human Nature post. I think Marx would have agreed with this. Both Marx and Ortega y Gasset place man within history, and make human nature, if there is any, a function of history.

I realized a couple of days ago that one way to express this would be to say that human nature is a function of the human condition. And the human condition in turn is an historical reality. Thus we could paraphrase Marx as follows:

“Men make themselves, but they do not make themselves as they please; they do not make themselves under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Further, we can observe that the human condition is a function of the longue durée. The longue durée, in turn, is an historical reality, or, rather, a way of looking at history. More importantly, the longue durée endures, but it is not permanent. The apparent rigidity of human nature — which for some recommends the idea, while for others is a reason to reject it — is a function of the human perspective. Given the perspective of the longue durée, human nature is not fixed, but is a function of the changing human condition. However, the human condition changes so slowly that from the perspective of the individual human being, it appears fixed and stable.

The human condition does change, and sometimes it changes dramatically. In The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, which I just discussed a couple of days ago in The Poor Man’s Bomb, author William Langewiesche wrote, “The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed.” (p. 13) I agree with this. The human condition was changed with the advent of nuclearization (which Karl Jaspers called, “the new fact”), because it represents the practical possibility of the suicide at least of civilization, and perhaps also of our species. This is an important development, and it is a changed aspect of the human condition that will, over the longue durée, result in a changed human nature.

In several posts in which I have distinguished what I have called the divisions of integral history, I have divided history not according to the customary distinctions of Western historiography, but according to primarily demographic concerns, based upon how the bulk of the human species lives. Another way to phrase this would be to say that the human condition was initially that of hunter-gatherers under the nomadic paradigm, which was followed by a human condition of subsistence farming under the agricultural paradigm, and has now become a human condition of mass industrial employment under the industrial paradigm. There is a sense, then, in which each of these primary divisions in the human condition would correspond with a human nature that emerges from these conditions.

Human nature, of course, even when conceived as a function of the human condition, is not monolithic. Small, incremental changes — changes like nuclearization — will make their contribution to a human nature substantially shaped by the institutions of industrialized society. There is room for variation, and even for incommensurable individuals existing within the same paradigm. The world, for all that it has shrunk, is still a very big place, and admits of individual and regional variation as certainly as it admits of temporal variation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few weeks back I wrote a post in which I mentioned the influence of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down had had on my thought (this was The Agricultural Paradigm). A few days later R. C. Richardson, emeritus professor of history, University of Winchester, Wrote “The Canon: The World Turned Upside Down by Christopher Hill” and Christopher Thompson responded to this on his Early Modern History blog (now apparently closed to the public, but his comment on Richardson appears on the THE website). I wrote about Hill again in Unintended Timeliness, and Nick Poyntz of Mercurius Politicus also wrote an appreciation of Hill. I was interested to note that these diverse contributions from diverse individuals were then all linked at the History News Network under the title A Christopher Hill Symposium.

I have continued to think about Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, especially this paragraph from Christopher Thompson:

The World Turned Upside Down graphically illustrates the problems inherent in Hill’s analysis of the events of the 1640s and 1650s. The groups that excited his interest — the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchists, etc — were and are important for their ideas but had minuscule support. Their activities and views were anathema, so far as we can tell, to the bulk of the populations of England, Wales and the rest of the British Isles. There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims. Indeed, the regimes of the post-1646 period depended on military force to remain in place because they lacked the consent of the bulk of the populations whose religious and political views were fundamentally conservative. For this reason, the English Revolution could not be consolidated at any stage.

This struck a nerve with me, but at first I didn’t really know why, except for the obvious (and probably correct) claim that the ideas of Hill’s early modern radicals were marginal at best and had no broadly-based social support. I just realized yesterday, however, that this stands in negative correlation to some claims that I made some time ago in The Nation-State: A Sketch of its Origins. In that post I wrote concerning early modern political philosophy:

The emergent practices of the early modern nation-state were felt to require a theoretical justification. Early modern political theory was, at least in part, a reaction against the feudal fragmentation of Europe… One political philosopher after another extolled the virtues of absolutism, and the difference between their doctrines was a matter of detail in the formulation of absolutism. Later modern political theory in the Enlightenment was, in turn, a reaction against the absolutism celebrated by their predecessors. With the rise of absolutist nation-states came a degree of order that the middle ages did not possess, but it also inaugurated an epoch of state repression — repression of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural minorities, repression of individuals, repression of dissent — novel forms of repression not conceived before the birth of the absolutist nation-state.

Of course, there were philosophers of the stature of Hobbes who were absolutists, but radical in another sense than the radicalism of the egalitarian doctrines celebrated by Hill. Hobbes’ materialism scandalized many in his day, although reading Hobbes today he doesn’t come across as any kind of radical, but that is only because the intervening lapse of centuries has produced unprecedented radicalisms and scandals. Hobbes only seems to lack radicalism in hindsight.

Philosophical reputation is an inscrutable and unpredictable thing, and not unlike poetic reputation. A philosopher can be famous in his day, his works widely circulated and the topic of much topical debate, and then, not long after his death, he falls out of favor and becomes the exclusive concern of antiquarians, his name only heard in lectures and seminars. On the other hand, a philosopher like David Hume, who gained wealth and fame as an historian but who was virtually unknown as a philosopher in his own time, now dominates philosophical discussion and stands among the names of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant as one of the great philosophical figures of his time.

Hobbes was well-enough known in his time that he was among the six who received an advance copy of Descartes’ Meditations and drafted a set of objections. Hobbes is also remembered as a classic political philosopher today, so Hobbes bridges the gap between being known in his own time and being known to posterity. In this, he is an unusual figure. There are many more unknown and obscure philosophers than there are well-known philosophers, and fewer still who are known to both their fellows and to posterity.

Because of Hobbes’ materialism, the established powers of his time kept their distance for him, ideologically speaking, but other writers — even relatively abstract philosophers — who said things that flattered powerful and wealthy patrons (or their presumptive ideological commitments) found their careers advanced. I wrote about this in my Variations on the Theme of Life (section 753):

Official philosophy.—There was a time when the refutation of skepticism was seen as a service to the state. Thus James Beattie was given a royal pension of two hundred pounds sterling per year for having written against Hume.

To which I appended the following footnote:

Such support has not disappeared, but has changed its appearance; today, this kind of largess comes instead in the form of research grants given to respectable academics by respectable institutions.

As we noted above, Hume was scarcely even recognized as a philosopher in his day, but writing against his corrosive skepticism was sufficiently interesting to the established powers that it won Beattie a generous pension. Philosophical theories, and the writers of philosophical theories, prosper or suffer in the degree to which they support or criticize those who hold political, military, or economic power. This is nothing other than the old Marxist distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure.

In this forum I have had many occasions to invoke the Marxist distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure, which I prefer to call economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure. I took the trouble today to look up the text that is usually cited as the source of this distinction, and here it is:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

So, there you have the locus classicus of the distinction, and it remains a useful idea today, however much Marx’s other doctrines have suffered in the intervening years. There is much more that can be said on this head, and in fact many subsequent philosophers have developed this theme in extenso (Antonio Gramsci, for example). Needless to say, as a Marxist, Christopher Hill would have been well familiar with this distinction.

Christopher Thompson, as quoted above, wrote about the radicals celebrated by Hill, “There was never any possibility of the societies of these islands being persuaded of the rectitude of their radical or sectarian claims.” With this claim I explicitly disagree. There was a possibility, but it was a possibility that remained unactualized due to contingent circumstances. It is not that people don’t have ideas that conflict with the economic infrastructure, but that patronage is distributed accordingly as one flatters that infrastructure, while punishment is meted out to those who defy it. Christopher Thompson presented radical thought as essentially repugnant to an essentially conservative outlook of the greater part of the population, and I do not dispute this, but I do not think that it is the whole story.

Peasant populations are notoriously conservative; they distrust foreign ideas at least as intensely as they distrust people from foreign villages, and the greater the distance, generally speaking, the greater the distrust. But peasant peoples are also generally uneducated and exposed to very little of the world. When they become educated, and achieve some exposure to the wider world, they are quite likely to identify with doctrines that express the content of their lives, and the content of their lives was largely one of one-sided and often onerous oppression by lords and landlords.

When radical ideas have been free to circulate among oppressed people, and no systematic measures are taken by elites to extirpate or punish these views, they often spread widely and rapidly. There are a few cases (admittedly, not many) when full scale revolutions have emerged from such influences.

England was not the only place in the early modern period to experience of great ferment of ideas and ideologies. The Protestant Reformation on the continent involved widespread proselytizing of a spectrum of religious doctrines of varying degrees of radicalism. In the case of the Peasant’s War, largely led by Thomas Munzter and denounced by Luther (the recipient of protection by German princes), these radical doctrines led to an uprising of peasants that had to be put down militarily. Radical doctrines among German peasants, then, had plenty of intrinsic traction, and only failed in the long run because no peasant force could stand against trained and armed elites: the peasants knew farming, while their aristocratic landlords knew fighting, so it wasn’t much of a contest.

For us it can only be a thought experiment to imagine what doctrines might have had a wide appeal among pre-industrialized agricultural laborers if ideas had enjoyed free and unrestricted distribution, if the peasantry had some rudimentary education, and if alternatives to the doctrines sanctioned by elites had not be violently suppressed through military force. Yet are enough traces and exceptions in the historical record to suggest that, even if radical doctrines might not have universally appealed, they would have had some appeal, and indeed I think that we can safely speculate that radical doctrines, under other circumstances than those that did hold in fact, would have enjoyed a representation among peoples at that time roughly proportional to that which they enjoy today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Yesterday I concluded my post on Impossible Desires with the observation that, “In so far as we did not choose industrialization, but it happened to us as part of a large social transformation that was not the act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals, it it difficult to accept.”

If we are not fatalists of one stripe or another, we want to believe in our own agency, and, generally speaking, the greater the agency we retain, the better. Yet most of what shapes our life is not anything that we have chosen. There is a famous quote from Marx that I have invoked on several occasions, with which he begins his essay on The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Marx’s oft-quoted passage captures the intersection of human agency and vulnerability to circumstances. Men make their history, but not simply as they please. That is to say, history is partly made, partly the result of human agency, and partly it is a thing that is not made, the result of no act or decision of any one individual or group of individuals. Again, unless one is a fatalist, this is difficult to accept. If, on the other hand, one is temperamentally fatalistic, one will embrace one’s contingent lack of agency in the world as an affirmation of one’s conception of history. This is the philosophical equivalent of confirmation bias, and it is a bias that we live by.

There are many conceptions of history that men live by; one is not confined to choosing between a dialectical opposition between agency and fatalism, and even choosing a point on the continuum between the two. It occurred to me today that one way to divide attitudes to history can be derived from Anatol Rapoport’s introduction to Clausewitz, which I previously discussed in More on Clausewitz.

Rapoport distinguished political, cataclysmic, and eschatological conceptions of war, but we need not limit these conceptions to war. We can, broadly speaking, adopt political, cataclysmic, or eschatological conceptions of history on the whole. In other words, we can conceive of history as being subject to the agency of human beings (the political conception), as being subject to no agency whatsoever (the cataclysmic conception), or as being subject to a non-human agency (the eschatological conception). These, then, are three over-arching conceptions of history that an individual could adopt. I assume that an individual will usually adopt that of history conception that is most closely in accord with his or her temperament. As Fichte said, the kind of philosophy one has depends on the kind of man one is. This statement has been widely deprecated by subsequent philosophers, but I for one would defend it.

Last May in Human Agency in History I suggested that grand strategy can be defined as integral history subordinated to human agency. In doing so, I revealed my bias as to history. But the very idea that there can be such a thing as grand strategy implies that human beings have at least some degree of agency in the world, however compromised and limited. However, we certainly could formulate conceptions of grand strategy based on alternative conceptions of history, to whit: political grand strategy, cataclysmic grand strategy, and eschatological grand strategy.

Some of these ideas may seem like a stretch, but it is a salutary conceptual exercise to try to stretch the mind to accommodate unfamiliar thoughts. And, having only just now formulated the above division of grand strategies according to world view, I can think of an illustration of one of the more unlikely conceptions, that of eschatological grand strategy. And it is this: several historians have related that, under the Byzantine Empire, the belief in divine providence was so prevalent in the society, and hence in the troops mustered by the society, that soldiers on the battlefield would look for signs that one side was winning or losing, and when the decision of the battle seemed sufficiently clear, the losing troops would rapidly capitulate, assuming that it was the will of God that they should lose the battle. Here is a very practical application of a eschatological conception of history and its application to grand strategy. I could easily produce a naturalistic account of such actions, but such an account — while perhaps preferable, indeed perhaps even true — would not do justice to how the participants in the events understood them. A naturalistic account of eschatological grand strategy, in other words, would not penetrate into what Collingwood called the “interior” of events.

Byzantine soldiers were reputed to throw down their arms and flee the battle field when the tide of events turned against them, convinced they had seen the hand of God at work.

A little more thought might furnish further interesting (and unfamiliar) examples of Weltanschauungen and the grand strategies that follow from them.

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This post has been superseded by subsequent posts in which I expand the framework here from three conceptions of history to four conceptions of history. See, for example, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Red is the universal symbol of socialism, communism, and Marxism, but it could just as well be green, for collectivist sentiments will always remain evergreen; they represent a perennial form of thought that will always find expression in every age. While the particular form that collectivist thought takes in a given era is specific to that era, it is a perennial tendency of thought and will in every era exhibit perennial properties. Since Marxism is a particular form of a perennial feature of thought, it can be expected to be historically viable. (There is a general principle implicit in this general claim, but I will leave this for another time.)

Since the nineteenth century, Marx has been the primary source of collectivist thought, and Marx will continue to be the primary representative for collectivist thought probably for some centuries to come. Not until another thinker of comparative stature emerges in the coming centuries to re-formulate a powerful collectivist vision on a level with that articulated by Marx will Marx himself be superseded.

The continuing relevance of Marx is attested to in last Saturday’s Financial Times, in which a review by Tony Barber of three books (The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown, The Frock-Coated Communist by Tristram Hunt, and Marx by Vincent Barnett) was titled Red Alert: Communism has long been discredited — but is there still mileage in the theories of Marx and Engels?

While with the end of the Cold War it became fashionable to speak of Marx being discredited or “proved wrong,” just as today, in the wake of the present financial crisis, it has become fashionable to dust off the tomes of Marx and seek their renewed relevance to the world situation, these twin events — the end of the Cold War and the present financial crisis — ought to have no special claim on our theoretical understanding other than the fact that they are important events that happened to have occurred during our life time. Other events will certainly occur in the future that will make Marxism seem more or less relevant, just as events have occurred in the past that made Marxism seem more or less relevant. The personal perspective on history is a kind of distortion, and one must work against being too much swayed by the events of one’s own time.

In my Globalization and Marxism I argued that Marxism has still not received its experimentum crusis, and may in fact never be subject to a crucial experiment that could decisively and definitively determine the truth value of Marxism’s most fundamental propositions.

A couple of days ago in Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement I mentioned Marcuse’s post-World War Two reflections on Marxism and the probability (or lack thereof) of proletarian revolution and what Marcuse called “orthodox Marxism” (of which he apparently considered himself a representative).

The “33 Theses” referenced in the above-mentioned post makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to return to this work by Marcuse in future posts. Marcuse takes the post-World War Two condition of Europe as his starting point, and at that point it is apparent that he already at that time considers orthodox Marxism to be defeated (or, at least, not a force to be reckoned with at that time in history). The Soviet Union at that time, even for orthodox Marxists, did not seem to present any hope for leading the vanguard of worldwide proletarian revolution.

Several of the pieces in Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, are similarly prescient; his orthodox Marxism has not impaired the rigor and objectivity of his scholarship. There is much to be learned here, still today, as there was much that could have been learned from it in Marcuse’s time that would have made the “Red Scare” that much less scary. But this is a large topic that cannot be adequately treated with an extemporaneous remark like that.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Today I just finished listening to Joseph Campbell’s lectures “Mythology and the Individual” (five lectures of about an hour each, from an “authorized edition” of the Joseph Campbell Foundation). For my part, Campbell’s lectures and the volumes of his correspondence that have been published since his death are the best sources of his thought — that is to say, better than his “books” as it were. In speaking, and in letters to friends, his learning is humane and conversational and always enlightening. This is not to say that his books are not, but only that I find more immediately relevant material in that which was not written as scholarly exposition.

Campbell does tend to repeat himself. He especially repeats his favorite stories, so that those familiar with his works will be as familiar with those stories he thought the best expression of a particular point he wished to make, and thus made often. While I don’t remember this from other works of Campbell, in this series of lectures to which I just listened, Campbell twice referred to “the economic interpretation of history,” but he only referred to it in passing, and then only to dismiss it as inadequate to any kind of understanding of life.

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987)

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987)

It is difficult to say what exactly Campbell means by “the economic interpretation of history” as he does not explain it, but a quick search on the phrase retrieves many books and lectures with that title, subtitle, or text. The obvious point of reference is Marx, and indeed in an article by May Wood Simmons from 1900 entitled “The Economic Interpretation of History” she writes that, “Karl Marx was the originator of the idea of the economic interpretation of history.”

It is easy to ridicule Marx, and easier yet to ridicule an idea plucked out of Marx and used as a stalking horse by others. With any such idea, there will be subtle and sophisticated interpretations as well as crude and vulgar interpretations. I notice that many of the references to the phrase “the economic interpretation of history” immediate follow that phrase with a reductionist summary that has been erected as a straw man simply for the purpose of being knocked over.

Set 'em up and knock 'em down: is the economic interpretation of history a mere straw man? (Andrew Wyeth's "Benny's Scarecrow"))

Set 'em up and knock 'em down: is the economic interpretation of history a mere straw man? (Andrew Wyeth's "Benny's Scarecrow")

Campbell, of course, is a mythology scholar, and it is not to be expected that a mythology scholar would have much sympathy for the economic interpretation of history, nor for anyone as iconoclastic as Marx, though Marx (as Bertrand Russell humorous pointed out) constructed his own mythology, which was a secularized formulation of Christian soteriology.

We could easily construct a straw man and call it “the mythological interpretation of history” and tear a quote or phrase out of content from Campbell in such a way as to ensure that it will sound ridiculous and be rejected prima facie by any who encounter it in this form. It could be said, in fact, that much positivist philosophy from Comte through Carnap up to our own day does exactly this. Campbell himself frequently deals with this, and takes pains to show (in several places, since, as I noted above, he tends to repeat his main points) that it is a distortion to think of a myth as a lie, as is so often the case today. Using the language of factual accuracy to “debunk” a myth is as wrong-headed as using the poetic and metaphorical language of mythology to demonstrate the inadequacy of the economic interpretation of history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Blindsided by History

16 February 2009

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It was never my intention to write so much here about artificial intelligence and machine consciousness, but having visited the topic in The Singularity has no Clothes and returned to it in The Law of Stalled Technologies, it becomes more apparent with each further glance at the topic that a brief treatment cannot do justice to all the issues involved. Also, it has been a fruitful inquiry. We have seen that a consideration of the possibility of a “technological singularity” led us to the Law of Stalled Technologies, and this in turn led us to the realization that social technologies may well manifest a similar pattern of development.

I ought to point out that I am not an AI “skeptic.” I’m not even a skeptic of the possibility of machine consciousness in a strong and robust form. On the contrary, if I had to give my position a name I suppose I would have to call myself an “inevitabilist” as it seems to me that if industrial-technological civilization has the opportunity to continue its present course of development, it will inevitably converge upon artificial intelligence and even machine consciousness — in some form, however inscrutable. And this is an important qualification to make, since if and when machine consciousness emerges in history, it will be incomprehensibly alien, perhaps unrecognizable for what it is (i.e., as another form of consciousness, distinct from human consciousness), because it will have emerged from a different evolutionary process than that from which we emerged.

We should expect to be blindsided by the future, as history is inherently unpredictable. Just ask a Marxist. Marx was supposed to have discovered the laws whereby history functions; some of his followers saw him as the Newton who gave the laws of motion for human society. Only, things didn’t work out the way Marx predicted. And even after history has run its course, people fight over the meaning and significance of what happened. Just ask an historian. There is little consensus on what actually happened in the past, for the past is a battleground.

Putting faith in our powers of prediction is a fool’s errand. Usually we cannot even see what is in front of our noses. One striking feature of intelligence gathering efforts in the twentieth century was its utter failure. All the biggest world events — what geopolitical types now call “strategic shocks” — were completely unexpected and blindsided even the experts. While there has been a lot of backpedaling during the past twenty years, I was old enough at the time of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe to remember how completely unexpected it was. And, of course, the same is true of the financial crisis today. After the fact, everyone says that they saw it coming. The fact is, almost no one saw it coming. It is a particular dishonesty of our time that so few are willing to admit it.

While I have just pointed out above how wrong Marx was, I will now make the point (after having much criticized Marx in this forum) of observing the sense in which Marx was a true visionary. Marx, unlike most men of his time, knew that he was witnessing a revolution. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, transforming the world of everyone, Marx included, but Marx was one of the few to explicitly realize that he was seeing a revolution. His vision opened his eyes to what was going on around him. Indeed, it was Marx’s realization that he was seeing a revolution that made him aware that revolutions were in fact possible and therefore there could be a revolution of the industrial proletariat that would expropriate the expropriators. It is a powerful vision, but it has remained a vision only.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution when others did not and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Similarly, our world has been and is being transformed by technology. It is a revolution, although this time there is more of an awareness that it is a revolution. Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity is essentially a prediction of the precise form that a further technological revolution will take. My issue it not with a technological revolution, but that it will take the form of a technological singularity, or, for that matter, any vision of a technological utopia in which human beings no longer struggle but rather enjoy unlimited abundance and leisure. This simply isn’t how the world works. We know we are alive because we struggle, and when we cease to struggle we will have given up and dropped out of history. The end.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

Fortunately, it is not yet the end for us — not quite yet, at least. The more I think about it, the more Kurzweil’s approach to AI and machine consciousness — “simple methods combined with heavy doses of computation” — is the antithesis of mind. It is the technological approach, and this approach has been buttressed by successes such as Deep Blue, but it is an approach that will stall, since it is based on a highly specific technology.

the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

One of several versions of IBM's Deep Blue: the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

Moore’s law, in its original form (and it has received several forms as its supporters have re-formulated it as technology has changed), was a very specific prediction about a very specific technology: it was concerned with how many transistors can be fit on an integrated circuit. The technology of integrated circuits has rapidly reached a point of maturity, and when this specific technology stalls can be predicted on the basis of known materials science.

This is not to say that computers might not continue to realize tremendous gains in performance, but if they do so it will be because new technologies replace integrated circuit technologies, which cannot function when the miniaturization of transistors falls below the size of the molecules of the particular materials used to create transistors in integrated circuits. At this point, the technology by definition reaches its end. There may be increases in computer performance from such things as quantum computing, but this is a distinct technology based on distinct materials and processes. Further improvements will not come from the stalled, older technologies, but from the new, innovative technologies only now beginning to experience an initial exponential growth.

Similarly, even if artificial intelligence and machine consciousness are inevitable, that does not mean that they can be predicted, projected, or extrapolated on the basis of present technologies. There is an element of anachronism in even supposing that this is so, and that is part of the charm of failed futurisms of the past. The simplicity of consciousness is the exact opposite of Kurzweil’s approach, which latter is based on a projection of present technologies. Consciousness operates with a large stock of rules of thumb derived from experience and many principles derived from reflection, and it works on a very few select perceptions retrieved from the preconscious mind.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth enquiring into why this is the case.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth inquiring into why this is the case.

Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear. While engineers and technologists may be slow to grasp this, canny politicians have exploited this facet of social technologies from the beginning of time: all hope is fixed upon the revolution that promises fundamental change, and not upon the Old Order, which is seen as demoralized, decadent, and compromised.

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