The Technocratic Elite

21 December 2014

Sunday


technocratic elite 1

One of the most fascinating aspects of civilization is how, despite thousands of years of development, radically different social, economic, and political systems, and the rapid growth of technology since the industrial revolution, there are structural features of civilization that do not change in essentials over time. (I have previously discussed these civilizational invariants in Invariant Social Structures, Invariant Properties of Civilization, and Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios.) One of these invariant structural features is social hierarchy, and more specifically the fact that, all throughout history, a tiny fraction of the population has been in a position of political control, while the vast bulk of humanity has been subject to the control of a small minority.

The existence of a power elite, as a civilizational invariant, implies that there is always a power elite in every civilization, though this power elite may take different forms in different civilizations, and throughout the history of a given civilization the power elite may shift among individuals, among families, among ideologies, among industries, and even among social classes. From the perspective of the big picture, who happens to hold power in a given society is a mere accident of history, and the interesting feature is that there is always a small elite that holds power.

The “big lie” of our time is that the power elite that currently graces our society is in its position as the consequence of meritocratic mechanisms that assure only the best will achieve the pinnacle of power. Thus the ancient idea of aristocracy (rule by the best) is preserved, but given a contemporary, democratic twist in the assurance that anyone can be selected by these social mechanisms for advancing and rewarding talent. Now, this “big lie” is no worse than any other big lies around which societies have been constructed — no worse, for example, than Plato’s “noble lie” — but no better either.

We may call the power elite who benefit from this “big lie” of industrial-technological civilization the technocratic elite. They are few in number, and essentially oligarchic. (A recent study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, reported on the BBC in Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy; many studies have demonstrated similar findings.) That our elite is a technocratic elite does not reflect upon the quality of individuals who belong to the elite, but rather the kind of civilization that happens to arbitrarily raise up a few individuals into positions of power. The nature of this civilization is such that it shapes its power elites in particular ways that are enabled by the technological means of mass control.

It is not difficult to spot the technocratic elite (apart from the obvious fact that they appear on the news and on the glossy color covers of magazines). They are in excellent health and are dressed well, though in an understated style. Good food and good clothes are expensive. One must also have the leisure to be able to care about such things: they have time to exercise and to eat right. Just the right amount of education in just the right schools to give just the right mid-Atlantic accent accounts for the elocution and steady, careful tone of voice. They have been taught to express superficial concern for the lives of others, and they spend just the right amount of time on just the right charities to achieve just the right amount of media exposure for their time investment. These are not qualities of the individual, but rather qualities conferred upon the individual by their unique position in a technological society.

In A Thought Experiment in Tyranny I asked:

“If the president of a given nation-state belongs to a class of wealthy, world-traveling, foreign language-speaking elites with more in common with other elites than with the people of the nation-state in question, is this local rule or foreign rule?”

While from the perspective of the ruled it matters immensely (and is sometimes a pretext for revolution); from the perspective of the technocratic elite it is irrelevant. The particular nation-state of their citizenship or their government service is indifferent, because wherever they live or serve or invest, they will have the same privileges, advantages, and immunities.

We can think of the technocratic elite as the system administrators of the universal surveillance state, although the particular nation-state for which they are the custodians of surveillance are indifferent. We know that blocs of nation-states freely share their intelligence along elites — for example, within NATO, and more freely yet among the “Five Eyes” of Anglophone intelligence services. Thus while nominally loyal to the interests of a particular nation-state, the technocratic elite are in fact loyal to the international system of nation-states and the vested interests that this system represents. That same anarchic individualism that the procedural rationality of the universal surveillance state seeks to suppress, or, at least, to channel and control, is manifested at a higher order of magnitude among nation-states in the anarchic nation-state system that has been and is becoming institutionalized in international institutions (cf. State Power and Hypocrisy).

The masses can be bought off by the contemporary equivalent of bread and circuses — i.e., food stamps and mass entertainment — they can be be distracted and redirected by a barrage of trivia called “news,” and they can be seduced into passivity by relatively easy working conditions and cheap consumer goods. The middle classes can be bought off by better consumer goods, new luxury cars, and large houses. The more ambitious among the middle classes can be buried under the debt that they acquire in order to acquire the credentials that will secure the social mobility that they desire. The limiting mechanisms of social control assure that there is very little social mobility into or out of the elite class itself, however much social mobility into or out of the middle class, or within the various levels of the middle class, may occur.

In a world of seven billion people, there are only a finite number of Ferraris, Armani suits, and oceanfront mansions; these finite goods are allocated according to a system of privilege intrinsic to the technocratic nation-state. While a member of the middle class may move up in status and wealth and eventually acquire such goods as they may purchase (the best consumer goods, lying beyond the means of most of the middle class, who can afford only better consumer goods beyond the means of the masses), in the big picture these goods are merely decorative, and they may serve to confer status without real power to those who are most deeply invested in the status quo of our society. They have done what is expected of them, and they are rewarded for their loyalty and hard work. They also serve as models for the masses and the less successful middle classes. This is the institutional true believer, i.e., the individual who gives himself or herself to the state, and the state in turn gives to the individuals who have identified their interests with those of the institution in question the rewards due to their station. (I have previously written about such individuals in A Third Temperament.)

It is not difficult to recognize such institutional true believers. Foucault now appears as much a prophet as a philosopher, as he noted that in the change from right of death to power over life, such men are “no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death.” This is now literally true with the special place that healthcare holds in industrial technological civilization: religion once held out hope of salvation in another world; medicine now holds out hope of salvation in this world. With the PPACA and its individual mandate forcing everyone into the medical-industrial complex, doctors will become the agents of the universal surveillance state. Many medical institutions have already done so, voluntarily and enthusiastically. And this should not surprise us. Being an agent of a powerful entity means access to power, and access to power means privilege. They, too, can reap the material rewards of their special position in society.

Yet in a world of ever more available consumer goods, privilege is increasingly expressed in the form of intangibles. In the information-driven world of industrial-technological civilization, information is power, and access to privileged information is not only restricted to privileged individuals, but the very act of restriction on information creates a privileged class that has access to that information.

Recently I was corresponding with a friend in Tehran, who was telling me about all the internet restrictions in Iran. I asked if the people there accept this with resignation, complain about it, or make excuses for it, and was told that countless excuses are made for these restrictions. We in the west can laugh and be smug about this, except that the situation is little different in western nation-stations. We have seen countless excuses made for the universal warrantless surveillance conducted by the NSA, and shocking vitriol and invective directed at anyone who questions the wisdom of this surveillance regime.

The hysterical response to WikiLeaks disclosures and the Snowden leaks was not about national security, it was about the technocratic elites of the universal surveillance state, who base their status upon privileged access to restricted information, having their status called into question. Security is not an end in itself, but is only a means to an end — the end of social control.

In an op-ed piece on Wikileaks, Google and the NSA: Who’s holding the ‘shit-bag’ now?, Julian Assange recounts what happened in the wake of an attempt by WikiLeaks’ staff to call the State Department directly in order to attempt to speak to Hillary Clinton:

“…WikiLeaks’ ambassador Joseph Farrell, received a call back to discuss the parametres of the call with Hillary, not from the State Department, but from Lisa Shields, the then-girlfriend of Eric Schmidt, who does not formally work for the US State Department. So let’s reprise this situation: The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton. This is illustrative. It shows that at this level of US society, as in other corporate states, it is all musical chairs.”

Assange is right: among the technocratic elite, it’s all musical chairs. But Assange was wrong in implying that things are different outside corporate states. It has always been musical chairs among the elites, whether technocratic or corporate or otherwise. The nature of the society or the civilization may shape the nature of the elites, but it does not change the fact of power elites, which is a civilizational invariant.

It is important to keep in mind that, while the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more venal than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, they are also no less venal. Similarly, the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more rapacious than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but they are also no less rapacious that their predecessors.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Advertisements

Sunday


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

Assassination may lead to war

Headlines around the World


The day after Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the event was headline news all over the world, reaching all the way to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where The Evening Herald, a local newspaper that published from 1906 to 1942, boldly proclaimed that the assassination may lead to war. They were right — more right than they knew.

The role of telecommunications and the media in the first global industrialized war was central, and this was revealed hard on the heels of the role of terrorism in the actual assassination. Still in our time, the role of the mass media in breathlessly reporting terrorism plays a central role in the 24/7 news cycle, shaping both public policy and public opinion, which latter, in mass societies, plays a driving role in events. Mass man and mass media feed off each other and escalate events, sometimes in destructive ways.

In an earlier age, it might have taken weeks for the news to travel around Europe, and months to make it around the world, but the technologies of newsprint (invented by Charles Fenerty in 1844), Linotype machines (invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884, the same year the Maxim gun was invented), the telegraph (first demonstrated by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844, the same year newsprint was invented), transoceanic telegraph cables (the first completed in 1858, which failed shortly thereafter, but after several attempts regular transatlantic telegraphy was established in 1866), and the wireless telegraph (patented by Marconi in 1896, but preceded by a long train of antecedent science and technology), a nearly instantaneous global communications network was established and continually improved from that time to the present day.

With a global communications network in place, news of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was known around the world within hours of its occurrence, and global industrial-technological civilization responded as quickly with headlines and official responses to the assassination. Belgrade wired its official condolences for the killing to Vienna on the 29th, in England King George V decreed seven days of mourning, and then in Russia Czar Nicholas II, in a kind of grief one-upmanship, ordered twelve days of mourning.

Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić publicly renounced the Black Hand terrorist organization that was behind the assassination, even while Milan Ciganovich, a Serbian state railway employee who was also spying on the Black Hand for Pašić, was smuggled out of Belgrade by Pašić and sent to Montenegro. Despite official condolences wired to Vienna, when several days later the Austro-Hungarian government asked whether the Serbian government had opened a judicial inquiry into the assassination, the response was that, “nothing has been done so far and the matter is of no concern to the Serbian government.”

. . . . .

1914 to 2014

. . . . .

A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

. . . . .

twentury century war collage small

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Monday


It has become one of the most familiar complaints today on the US political scene that the political system of the US is mired in permanent gridlock. Nothing gets done because the people are divided and vote into office individuals with vastly differing agendas; the two-party system ensures that the two parties are always at each others’ throats, vying for money, votes, and influence; the corrupting influence of money in the political process has meant that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence upon public policy; the never ending stream of laws and rules and regulations that issue from the Capitol mean that no business has a stable operating environment, hence tremendous amounts of money are spent by industry in lobbying the government to get the regulations it prefers. Nothing gets done, is the complaint. What this complaint really amounts to it this: the government doesn’t get anything done. But, really, should we count on the government to get anything done? Do we want the government to have to power to efficiently put its plans into practice?

I‘ve got news for the complainers: the US political system was designed for gridlock; it’s supposed to be that way. The checks and balances that constitute the US political system were intended to prevent the government from functioning efficiently. Tyrannies function efficiently, but that isn’t a model for any government to follow. However, tyrannies often can point to dramatic short term achievements — Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet economy in the 1930s when Western countries were mired in depression, and Hitler’s regimentation of Germany after the chaos of the Wiemar Republic — and as a result of these short-term, unsustainable accomplishments there have been many commentators in democratic countries who have looked with envious eyes at the accomplishments of dictators and tyrants (as today they look east with obvious China Envy).

I have written several posts in which I have attempted to frame the US political system in the context from which it derives historically: as an explicit and systematic manifestation of Enlightenment political thought (cf. From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), deeply indebted to Montesquieu, Locke, and Hume, and itself a reaction against extreme statist philosophies of the early modern period such as that of Hobbes as well as a reaction against the excesses of the religious wars in Europe following the Reformation (cf. The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins). Since much of this historical context has been lost, and Americans are famously unconcerned about history (Henry Ford said “History is bunk”), Americans by and large, including American political leaders, have little idea what their country is about (i.e., what the Framers were trying to do) and many Americans are openly hostile to Enlightenment political ideas and ideals.

Because of the relative absence of Enlightenment ideals in contemporary political discourse, we have instead the vulgar “ideals” that have emerged in the meantime: celebrity, wealth and its conspicuous consumption, temporary political triumphs of the “zero sum” sort, and the ephemeral (but perennially attractive) blandishments of a youth culture that celebrates a Dionysian frenzy of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (which, these days, is less about rock-n-roll and more about rave, industrial, trance, techno, and the like). Anyone can realistically aspire to these ideals, and many in fact do, but the ideals of contemporary mass consumer society, like any ideals, have their disappointments. In the US today anyone has a great deal of freedom to live as they like, but you cannot have any impact on contemporary events unless you have money, fame, or connections — preferably all three, but a sufficient quantity of any one of these usually translates into the other (which Joseph Fouche of the now-defunct blog Committee of Public Safety characterized as “all power is fungible”).

Being anonymous or poor in a world in which fame and money are the currency of effective action means being denied the possibility of effective action. This is one source among many of the feeling of alienation that is so common in industrialized society — the feeling of being a powerless cog in an enormous and uncaring machine. (I wrote about this in Fear of the Future.) In such a society, the entire life of an anonymous individual is reduced to the liberty of indifference, which is better than no liberty at all, but not the role in which most individuals see themselves.

One way to address the disaffection and alienation of anonymity in industrialized society is to make individuals feel a genuine part of mass social movements. This is the path of totalitarianism, which, like earlier forms of tyranny and dictatorship, is not sustainable. However, at a much attenuated level, there any many people in the US political system who look to the president to “lead” and are frustrated when little effective leadership is forthcoming. I suppose that there are many people who intuitively feel (even if they would not state it in these terms) that the US President represents what Rousseau called the “general will” as opposed to the mere “will of all” and that it is the responsibility of the President to lead in accordance with the general will and for the people to follow in the same spirit.

In recent history, nation-states have in fact been at the vanguard of the greatest undertakings of human beings, not least because nation-states have the resources at their command that make it possible to undertake expensive and difficult enterprises like mass warfare and space travel. If some other political paradigm (other than the nation-state, that is) prevailed in the present, then that institution would have the resources to undertake great enterprises. The important thing to keep in mind here is that there is nothing that is necessary about the predominance of the nation-state in human affairs, or indeed even the predominance of some political institution.

FDR and Keynes, each in their very different ways, contributed to a climate of opinion in which the nation-state is the locus of human action, shifting the perception of the power and agency of the state as something distant and relatively unimportant to being the central fact in the lives of industrialized masses. FDR greatly expanded the scope and role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary US citizens, and Keynes formulated the economic doctrine that the state had an obligation to insert itself into the economy, no matter how disastrously many of these interventions turned out to be. These foundational developments, along with a string of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made a mockery of the Bill of Rights, have consolidated the nation-state as the central power in the lives of US citizens, even if no one knows what that nation-state is supposed to represent.

The idea that the initiatives that move history forward will be government initiatives is fundamentally flawed, and, since it is fundamentally flawed, in the fullness of time it will reveal itself as flawed through the bitter disappoints that it delivers to its true believers. In the meantime, however, there is so much momentum behind the idea of the nation-state and its centrality in the life of peoples that its less-than-optimal performance will be sustained by this momentum for quite some time to come. There will be plenty of blame to spread around to a wide variety of targets before people will come to realize that the nation-state, even in its most intrusive nanny state incarnation, is not going to come and hand you a wonderful life on a silver platter.

Individuals will ultimately be the agents that move history forward. We must look to ourselves to become such individuals that are capable of moving history forward despite the best efforts of officials and bureaucrats and functionaries who presume to speak on our behalf. We need only stop believing in their pronouncements in order to begin the process of freeing ourselves from the the grip of statist omnipotence.

It is a good thing that the US government should be systematically stymied in any grand initiatives it might undertake; I don’t think that many people would enjoy living in the world that would result for the efficacious prosecution of the government’s grand plans for our future. The twentieth century provided us to all too many examples of utopian ideals, which, when put into practice, issued in dystopian realities. (cf. Addendum on Unintended Consequences) I remain hopeful in proportion as the government is weakened by its own infighting.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

. . . . .

History Degree Zero

22 October 2012

Monday


Waiting at the End of History

for the Coming of the Zero Hour


What does French literary criticism have to do with geopolitics, geostrategy, and far future scenarios of human civilization? Everything, as it turns out.

Roland Barthes wrote a book titled Writing Degree Zero; one could say that it is a work of literary criticism, but as with much sophisticated scholarship it is more than this. French literary criticism is not a scholarly undertaking for the faint at heart.

Barthes compares what he calls “writing degree zero” to the writing of a journalist; we can similarly compare history degree zero with the history found in journalism. In journalism, nothing ever happens, and at the same time something is always happening. It is the contemporary incarnation of the cyclical conception of history, in which nothing in essentials changes even while accidental change is the pervasive order of the day. (In Italy this is called “Gatopardismo.”) This is history reduced to white noise.

Here is Barthes’ own formulation of writing degree zero:

“Proportionately speaking, writing at the degree zero is basically in the indicative mood, or if you like, amodal; it would be accurate to say that it is a journalist’s writing. If it were not precisely the case that journalism develops, in general, optative or imperative (that is, emotive) forms. The new neutral writing takes place in the midst of all those ejaculations and judgments, without becoming involved in any of them; it consists precisely in their absence. But this absence is complete, it implies no refuge, no secret; one cannot therefore say that it is an impassive mode of writing; rather, that is is innocent.”

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (originally published 1953), pp. 76-77

It has been said that Barthes’ book is parochial, and certainly his central concern is French literature, and the situation (or, if you prefer, the dilemma) of the French writer. Barthes was a man of his place and time, and the book sets itself questions that scarcely resonate in early twenty-first century America: How can writing be revolutionary? We’ve come a long way since 1968.

Barthes was clearly vexed that a lot of writing by professed communists was anything but revolutionary. It was, in fact — horror of horrors — bourgeois, and little better than shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, and yellow journalism. Barthes, then, was asking how it was possible for someone with truly revolutionary ideas to write in a revolutionary manner.

One must recall that at this time there were two kinds of writers in France: communists who supported Stalin and made excuses for him, and communists who did not support Stalin and made no excuses for him. (If you have the chance, I urge you to see the wonderful film Red Kiss, which is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort for its illustration of the period.) The most famous literary-intellectual-philosophical dispute of the time — that between Sartre and Camus — perfectly exemplified this. Camus, not one to make excuses for anyone, said he would be neither a victim nor an executioner. Sartre, after resisting the blandishments of communism for many years, eventually became the most unimaginative of communists, defended Stalin and Mao, and had his lackeys take Camus to task in print.

Barthes explicitly cites the style of Camus as embodying the qualities of writing of the zero degree, though I think that Barthes was so personally involved in the idea of literature that his identification of Camus as writing degree zero was not in any sense intended as a political slander — or, for that matter, as a literary slander. (I hope that more informed readers will correct me if I am wrong.)

Journalism, then, is historiography degree zero, and in so far as journalists produce (as they like to say) the first draft of history, and in so far as this first draft is subsequently iterated in later drafts of history, historiography more closely approximates the zero degree. (If you prefer reading sitreps to journalism — they’re pretty much the same thing — you can reformulate the preceding sentence.) And then again, in so far as mass journalism is consumed by a mass audience, and that mass audience goes on to create contemporary history, in a mass spectacle of life imitating art, history itself, and not merely the recounting of history in historiography, approaches the zero degree. The new neutral history — uninvolved, disengaged, absent — is the perfect characterization of the mass politics of mass man.

There are elections, there are debates, there is television news 24/7 and radio talk shows 24/7, there are still a few newspapers and magazines sacrificing dead trees, and there is of course the blogosphere resonating with the voices of the millions (like myself) who have no access to the media megaphone and who prefer the web to a soapbox. All of this feeds into the appearance that there is always something going on. But we know that almost nothing changes for all the sound and fury. It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, since the rich will still be rich and the poor will still be poor.

Have we already, then, reached history degree zero? Are we living at the end of history? Is this what the end of days looks like? Not quite. Not quite yet.

One of the most famous and familiar motifs of Marx’s thought is that history is driven by ideological conflict. It is a very Victorian, very Darwinian, very nineteenth century idea. History understood as an ideological conflict has characterized the modern period of Western history, even if it was not always obvious what people were fighting for. Sometimes it was obvious what men were fighting for, and this was especially true in the wake of revolutions: those who died to defend the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution knew, to some extent at least, what they were fighting for.

For Marx, the locomotive of history was the class struggle, and it was the nature of class struggle to erupt into revolutionary action. Revolutions, as I noted above, had the property of clarifying what it’s all about. You’re on one side of the barricades or the other. Marx was right to focus on revolutions, but wrong to focus on the class struggle.

We can arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of modern history if we take social class out of Marx’s class struggle and make the class a variable for which we can substitute any political entity whatsoever. Thus we arrive at a formal conception of political struggle: a social class can struggle against a nation-state; a nation-state can struggle against a royal family; a royal family can struggle against a city-state, and so on, and so forth.

The convergence of the international system on the model of the nation-state system has given us the appearance that nation-states struggle with nation-states, and as life has imitated art — in this case, the art of political thought — we have steadily been reduced to the monoculture of a single kind of political entity — nation-states — engaged in a single kind of struggle. Francis Fukuyama called this political system “liberal democracy” and this condition “the end of the history.” I guess one name is as good as any other name; I would call it political homogenization.

In many posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (a thesis, I might add, heavily indebted to French scholarship, and especially to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel — note that Kojève was an acquaintance of Leo Strauss and his work was translated by Allen Bloom, noted literary critic and cranky academic who wrote The Closing of the American Mind). I have pointed out that, despite the many dismissive critiques of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, and claims of a “return of history,” that Fukuyama himself still holds a modified version of the thesis, and this is that contemporary liberal democratic society is the sole remaining viable form of political society (cf. Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I noted that Fukuyama is still thinking through his thesis twenty years on, as befits a philosopher).

As it turns out, there is a political level below that of the “end of history” and this is the absence of history — history degree zero.

A single remaining political ideology signifies History Degree One, and in the theater of political ideologies, liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the last man standing — but if this last man standing is a straw man, and we knock over this straw man, what then? If it can be shown that liberal democracy is a failure also, along with communism and fascism, nationalism and socialism, internationalism and fundamentalism, what comes next?

What then? Zero hour. History degree zero.

Even the end of history waits for further developments, and the future of the end of history is Zero Hour.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Submergent Properties

14 May 2010

Friday


An Exercise in Theoretical Parallelism

If I have any careful readers they will know by now that I have a penchant for theoretical parallelism, i.e., formulations of a prospective theory based upon and parallel to an existing theory employed as a point of departure. My recent writings on integral history and on philosophy as a kind of integral science are in the same spirit, although in a more subtle way. By employing parallel formulations we are extending the scope of an initial theory beyond its intended scope of validity and thereby employing the theory in an extended sense (essentially, an anti-Kantian project). In so far as I called integral history history in an extended sense and philosophy science in an extended sense, these are also parallel formulations. So today I will briefly explore another parallel formulation.

A few days ago in Negative Organicisms I suggested the possibility of organic wholes that are less than the sum of their parts, as distinct from the familiar idea of organic wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. This seems to me to be a largely unobserved ontological phenomenon. We can develop the idea of negative organicism a little more systematically by appealing to a negative instantiation of what are called emergent properties, and which I will here call submergent properties.

Emergent properties are properties that emerge from complex systems as a result of the unforeseen interaction of the component parts of that system, and which properties did not subsist in the components taken individually. Examples of emergent properties include the social structures that emerge from groups of living organic beings when assembled in sufficiently large numbers. Nothing in the constitution of the individual taken as individual would allow us to project or predict the emergence of complex social codes or hierarchies such as have consistently appeared in history.

In parallel with emergent properties, we can define submergent properties as properties that do subsist in the individuals that are components of a system (or a whole) but which are lost or disappear or are submerged when these individuals are assembled together into a systematic relation or a whole. We see then that submergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes exemplify negative organicism, just as emergent properties are the mechanism by which wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts are able to exceed the sum of their parts. Both are examples of ontological mechanisms such as I recently discussed in A Short Note on Scientific Thought.

The most obvious example of a submergent property that occurs to me as I write this is the loss of individuality that members of a crowd or a mob experience. I have written about what at the beginning of the First World War was called the “August Madness” when crowds came out onto the streets of European cities to “celebrate” the outbreak of the war (and I wrote about this again in The August Madness). People who have experienced being part of such mass movements often speak of their feelings of being part of something greater than themselves, and while they do not often speak of it, I suspect that this feeling of community, at least to a certain degree, supplants the feeling of individuality. The loss of individuality would in turn account for the negative organicism of human compassion, such that we often observe that crowds are brutal, stupid, and violent and rather less caring and benevolent than individuals taken individually. It is no surprise that revolutionary violence emerges from a mob.

This is not the pure ontological example that I would like to produce as an example of submergent properties, but I think that it is one that many people can poignantly recognize in themselves if they will honestly search their memories. A generalization of this experience of the loss of individuality might lead us to an adequate definition of mass man, which in turn might make possible an adequate definition of the mass society that has emerged from the world transformed by industrialization. At these greater levels of generality — abstract from the individual, in a certain sense — we might approach more purely ontological instances of submergent properties, but I will leave discussion of such instances for future posts when such examples happen to occur to me.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Moral Borderlands

7 May 2010

Friday


One of the most problematic borders in the world today: but every border, though a limit, is also an overlap.

In his The Next 100 Years George Friedman characterized borderlands in this way:

“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”

I cite this not as a paradigmatic definition, but because it is the most recent reference I have on borderlands. When I was looking up information on borderlands today I found that there is an entire journal devoted to their discussion, Journal of Borderlands Studies, so one can expect that borderlands have received many definitions and have been conceived in many ways.

Geographical regions have borderlands in space. Geopolitical entities have borders in both space and time. For that matter, we can identity the borders — well-defined or ill-defined — of almost any temporal phenomenon. That is to say, anything that exists in time will have a temporal border at its beginning and at its ending — when it comes to be from something it is not, and when it ceases to be and cedes its place to something that it is not (to employ Aristotelian language).

When I was thinking about it today, it struck me that there are moral borderlands, and moral borderlands, like geographical borderlands, are regions of tension and conflict. While I am sure that there are a great many examples that might be adduced, I am going to discuss only two of them that happen to be on my mind at present.

Several times I have cited an earlier post of mine, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, in which I suggested that, in the wake of profound social changes wrought by industrialization, that societies have been casting about for a robust and sustainable way to live with the consequences of industrialization. In the terminology of today’s post, I would now say that the periods of transition between social models are moral borderlands.

A consensus on social organization means a moral consensus on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable within a given society. When one form of social order is breaking down and another is in formation but still inchoate, the moral conventions of the two different social models often clash. What is right for one age, is not always right for a later age, and at the point of time when those ages overlap, there is moral conflict between the representatives of the old order of society and representatives of the new order of society.

Moral conventions are deeply integral with the totality of social conventions, and indeed in a fine-grained account of social life there are a great many cases in which it would be problematic at best to distinguish what is a moral convention from what is a mere social convention without moral force. This may be less apparent today, in an age of relative tolerance and rapid change, but it is true to some degree even now.

In the agricultural economy of the pre-industrialized world it was commonplace for people to have large families. Children were put to work on a farm as soon as they were physically capable of even the smallest task. Another pair of hands was always needed for the labor-intensive task of subsistence farming, and having a large family also had the added benefit that, in the unlikely event that one lived into old age, there was a higher likelihood that at least one child would be willing to care for the aged parent in a world with no social safety net whatsoever. The alternative to being supported by a child was the most object poverty imaginable.

The misery of working conditions in the early periods of industrialization was compounded by the acceptance of institutions such as child labor. If children routinely labored on the farm, why should they not labor in the factory? It took time to sort this out.

For the subsistence farmer, a large family is “good.” Many other things are good as well, and the subsistence farmer is not likely to distinguish between eudaemonistic goods that make for a better and more comfortable life and strictly moral goods. As I noted above, in many cases it would be difficult to draw the distinction in any kind of rigorous way. The way of life is completely integral with the conceptions of life’s goods for the two to be separated without violence.

The first social consensus of industrialization included features now understood to be exploitative and inhumane.

The Industrial Revolution emerged in this context. Families displaced from rural circumstances for a variety of different reasons, or simply drawn to the growing cities for their intrinsic attraction, did not suddenly change their moral outlook upon moving into the city. A large family was still good. So people continued to have large families, and they put their children to work in the factory system as soon as they were able, just as they would have put them to work on the farm as soon as they were able to do farm chores. We now look upon industrial-scale child labor as a great evil, but it emerged from a moral borderland. The way of life of country people was retained after their move into cities, and it took time for this to change, just as it also took time for the factory system to demand skilled and educated labor. It is easy for us to condemn child labor and consign it to the horrors of early industrialization, but it is more important to try to understand how it came about — it didn’t come out of nowhere, but from the context of lives in the midst of change.

Another instance of moral borderlands that is on my mind is the use of nuclear weapons. I mentioned in a couple earlier posts (Revolution, Genocide, Terror and The Threshold of Atrocity) listening to Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. The author begins with an uncompromising indictment of Truman as a mass murderer because of his decision to use newly available nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after the end of World War Two, and throughout much of the Cold War, it became commonplace to speak of nuclear war as “the unthinkable.” And certainly in the context of mutually assured destruction, nuclear war had become unthinkable. But when the first nuclear weapons were made available, there was no conception whatsoever of nuclear war, and the use of the most recent weapons technology was far from unthinkable. On the contrary, the failure to use a new weapons technology in a war would be more unthinkable than the reverse.

The end of the Second World War saw the introduction of nuclear weapons, so there is a sense in which the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. But we don’t think of it that way. The Second World War saw the introduction of many transformative technologies such as digital computers for code making and code breaking, ballistic missiles, and jet fighters. No less important were social technologies of military doctrine that both began and ended the war. German’s Blitzkrieg over Europe was a new doctrine, a new social technology, for existing armaments, just as the firebombing of Dresden was a new doctrine for the use of existing armaments. The war made men become clever in diabolical ways.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

The Second World War was the culmination of mass warfare, the predictable outcome of the emergence of an industrialized society based upon mass man. We will probably not see its like again any time soon. The age of precision munitions is upon us, and this has already changed war dramatically. When we look at the casualty numbers of earlier wars and compare them to the casualty numbers of recent wars, the truly remarkable thing is how low casualties are now. While the role of intensive media coverage gives the impression of mass suffering, in fact far fewer people are suffering from war than during the twentieth century. It sounds heartless and cruel to say it straight out like that, and it is cold comfort to those who are suffering from war, but it is nevertheless true. At least for the time being, the age of mass war is over.

Though over now, as we noted above, the Second World War was the culmination of mass war, and nuclear weapons are the culmination of weaponry for mass war. Nuclear weapons aren’t good for anything except mass war, and they created a paradigm of mass war that became unthinkable the more it was thought about. But just as it took time for the evils of mass child labor to become apparent, so too it took time for the evils of mass nuclear war to become apparent. For those who condemn Truman for his decision to drop the bomb, there are a great many contemporaneous quotes to draw upon of those who saw clearly the nature of nuclear war. But the end of the Second World War was a moral borderland, and in the borderland there are two moralities and an underlying tension.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Mass War and Mass Man

27 April 2009

Monday


marx4

This morning on twitter I jotted down a few quick notes that partially reflect the fact that I am presently listening to a couple different books about war: Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, by Marshall de Bruhl, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954 – 1962, by Alistair Horne.

a-savage-war-of-peace

As I was capturing a few thoughts about contemporary warfare, it dawned on me that my thoughts on war can be given an interesting Marxist formulation. If there is anyone who reads this forum on a regular basis you will know that, despite my clear differences with Marx, I often end up citing and quoting him, and I will further develop my quasi-Marxist reflections today.

firestorm

One of the features of Marx’s thought that retains its value despite the problematic nature of so much Marxist theory is that of the distinction between economic base and ideological superstructure. There should be a name for this distinction and the view of society that it implies, but I am not sufficiently up on Marxist studies to know if there is a term that is commonly used within the discipline, so at present I will refer to it as “the economic interpretation of history”.

I wrote about this last week in relation to Joseph Campbell’s use of the phrase, and there I said that I didn’t know exactly what Campbell meant by it. Well, this is as good a meaning as any for the phrase, and indeed I think it sums up the idea Campbell meant to criticize quite nicely. We could even say (with a certain flourish) that the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is that the ideological superstructure of a society is completely determined by the economic base of the same society.

This uncompromising statement of the fundamental theorem of the economic interpretation of history is a perfect instance of reductionism as well as of constructing a theoretical absolute. Reductionism is mostly out of favor among contemporary thinkers, though it is not without its advocates, and constructing a theoretical absolute can be little different than erecting a straw man. There are obvious re-formulations of this theorem that are far less rigid, and thus far more likely to be true, or, at least, to have some truth in them. For example, we could say that the economic interpretation of history is the principle that ideological superstructure is mostly determined, or somewhat determined, by economic base. Or, hedging even more, that ideological superstructure is determined at least in part by economic base. It would be foolish to deny the latter outright, so we see that between an absolutist and uncompromising statement of a principle, and a thoroughly hedged statement there can be the difference between night and day.

But rather than conditionalize, compromise, or hedge, I would like to go in the direction of greater abstractness and generality. In other words, I would like, for the moment, to pursue an even more thorough-going reductionism, all in the interest of philosophical principle.

When thinking about it this morning, I was struck by the obvious fact that Marx’s formulation of the economic interpretation of history can be generalized. Rather than limiting our foundations to economic foundations, any social system whatever can be seen as the social base of a society, while any cultural or intellectual expression of a people is a wider field of ambition than political ideology in the narrow sense. Thus a generalization of Marx’s principle would be that social conditions determine the life of the mind. Once again, if we hedge and say, “Social conditions, at least in part, determine the life of the mind,” we have a proposition with which few will disagree.

Now, to war. War is one form of social organization. Indeed, it is a pervasive form of social organization throughout human history. There are important respects in which war is an expression of human culture. It is then to be expected that the social conditions of a society at war are expressed in the methods by which that society makes war.

Since the end of the Second World War, there was been much discussion of strategic bombing. An explicitly philosophical treatise has been written to denounce it as immoral (A. C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?). Caleb Carr denounces it in his The Lessons of Terror. Firestorm, mentioned above, questions the utility and rationale of strategic bombing. But, if I am at least partly right, it is misleading to try to understand strategic bombing in exclusively moral or political terms. Strategic bombing is an expression of our culture.

"What will happen once the authentic mass man takes over, we do not know yet, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin." Hannah Arendt

"What will happen once the authentic mass man takes over, we do not know yet, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin." Hannah Arendt

Once we see it in this context, it seems rather obvious. Hannah Arendt is especially remembered for her argument that twentieth century totalitarianism and fascism is a political outcome of the emergence of mass man in history. I would argue that mass warfare is also a nearly inevitable historical outcome of the emergence of mass man. Today we have mass war for mass man. It may be horrific, but it is not to be treated as some kind of anomaly: this style of warfare perfectly matches the structure of society today.

. . . . .

For the record, below are my Twitter posts from this morning, laying the above out with a certain succinctness:

1. Influencing policy through mass terror could have no place before popular opinion was crucial to the formulation of policy.

2. The limited war of earlier ages corresponded to the drastically limited sovereignty of non-democratic institutions.

3. Where vox populi is law, to shift the feeling or perceptions of the people, through terror or other means, is a coherent strategy.

4. Twentieth century campaigns of mass death and strategic bombing are brought into being (not justified) by popular sovereignty.

5. The ideological superstructure of modern war (mass war) supervenes upon the social and economic base of modern human life (mass man).

6. Mass war is a product of the Age of Mass Man.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: