Sean Kelly and I delivered this a few weeks ago at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA at our philosophy program’s annual retreat.
Andrew Schwartz and I discussed Marx and Whitehead last week.
Below is a recording of my talk (a video first, then audio only that includes the discussion afterwards). I’ve also included an extended draft of some notes I took to prepare my talk. Finally, I’ve included my notes taken while listening to Jason Moore during yesterday’s opening lecture.
Fifth annual conference of the World-Ecology Research Network
“Planetary Utopias, Capitalist Dystopias: Justice, Nature, and the Liberation of Life”
California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA
May 30-June 1, 2019
Matthew T. Segall – “Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization”
A few words about the words in the title:
“Cosmopolitics” is an effort on the part of thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway to think beyond the modern human/nature and fact/value divides, or what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.”
“Civilization“?!? This phrase, “ecological civilization,” comes from China’s Communist Party. Achieving ecological civilization is one of their stated goals for the 21st century. In China there are now about 35 graduate programs and research centers devoted to Whitehead’s thought and process studies.
What does it mean, to Whitehead, to be “civilized”? He does not use the term in an exclusivist sense and is even willing to consider that some animals some of the time (e.g., squirrels) may be capable of it (see Modes of Thought). But usually not. It means a conscious recognition of and participation in the creative power of ideas–like freedom or love–to shape history.
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality).
Whitehead is not an idealist, however. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat can support their ingression.
Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or scratched onto paper pages by human hands. Whitehead invites us to expand our conception so that we can sense that the idea of the Good generates the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks and butterflies and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.
“The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Modes of Thought 151).
Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human being participating in society, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.
Whitehead (in a conversation with his wife Evelyn and the journalist Lucien Price in 1944) was asked if the prior half-century or so had any political thinkers as daring as those who inaugurated the new relativistic and quantum physics, he answered “There is Marx, of course; though I cannot speak of him with any confidence.” But he goes on to describe Marx as “the prophet of proletarian revolt” and marks the singular relevance of the fact that the first practical effectuation of his ideas [Soviet Russia under Lenin] occurred in a society dominated by farmers. Here we see Whitehead was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of food sovereignty. Any serious resistance to capitalism must begin with soil and seeds.
What is value? We can discuss the differences between use v. exchange value, objective v. subjective value, but ultimately Marx says value is a social relation determined by the amount of labor time it requires to produce a commodity. Humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extrahuman that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos there is no mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by something called Man.
Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe” (Modes of Thought 111).
We can link value to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, or Marx, or Hayak, limit agency and thus value-creation to human beings.
According to Latour, the abstract, idealistic materialism of classical Marxism misses the activity/agency of the world.
Latour: “We have never been modern in the very simple sense that while we emancipated ourselves, each day we also more tightly entangled ourselves in the fabric of nature.”
Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters of nature.
“The fabric of our collectives has had to be radically transformed to absorb the citizen of the 18th century and the worker of the 19th century. We need a similar transformation now to make space for non-humans created by sciences and techniques.” -Latour (We Have Never Been Modern 185-6).
Latour’s Gifford lectures on Gaia invite us to transform our imagination of the earth as modern globe by turning it inside out, such that we come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the earth, we are enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
How are we to think human freedom and human-earth relations after modernity? Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic as moderns have imagined. Marx says that what distinguishes the worst human architect from the best honey bee is that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human creativity works? Is this really how bee creativity works? Architect Christopher Alexander discusses how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of order and beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.
Donna Haraway: “in so far as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan” (Staying With the Trouble, 50).
What does Haraway propose we do instead? In place of deterministic teleology, she proposes process-relational creativity; and in place of a Big Plan from on high she proposes playful communal kin-making with the ecological beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise communicate with on the daily down here on planet Earth. She credits James Clifford (Return) with the notion of a “big enough” story, a story that remains “ontologically unfinished” and situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue” (Return 85-86).
How do we become sensitive to the values of nonhumans? We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help us become sensitive to the values of nonhumans. Indigenous peoples can help us develop these. I think something like this is going on even in major documentary films like the new Attenborough film “Our Planet” (problematic as its title is, and as Attenborough’s ecological politics are): e.g., the images of a mass suicide of walruses in northeastern Russia.
Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we just justify our presence on Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society?
There are a number of ongoing polemics among anti-capitalist scholars, particularly metabolic rift theorists and world-ecology researchers (e.g., John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore; incidentally, Foster seems to get Latour all wrong), regarding the proper way to understand the relation between human beings and the rest of the natural world. I would want to approach these disputes in a diplomatic manner. I am not here to choose sides, and anyway I don’t even know the whole story. But at this catastrophic moment in geohistory, those of us resisting the mitosis of capital might do well to focus less on widening abstract semantic divisions and more on imagining and materializing the shared future we hope we one day achieve on this Human-Earth.
Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 20 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development.
AP headline on May 6th, 2019 reads “UN report: Humanity accelerating extinction of other species.” The first line reads: “People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.”
NY Magazine headline also on May 6th, 2019 by Eric Levitz: “Humanity is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide.”
He concludes: “Earth’s ecosystems did not evolve to thrive amid the conditions that a global, advanced capitalist civilization of 7 billion humans has created. And that civilization did not evolve to thrive on a planet without coral reefs, wetlands, or wild bees — and with global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by 1.5 degrees. Bringing our civilization’s ambitions and modes of operation into better alignment with the environment’s demands no act of altruism. It merely requires recognizing our own collective long-term self-interest, and changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, on a global level, through international cooperation.”
Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.
Marx is not unaware of our dependence upon the natural world, writing that: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”
Marx also writes in Capital of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature” (https://isreview.org/issue/109/marx-and-nature).
Marx is dialectical in his understanding of the human-earth relation, but he still treats nature as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness.
With Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this, as I noted above) but a cosmological or ecological power from which our human values, and our human power, derive.
Citations for the above:
Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead by Lucien Price, p. 220.
Thursday, May 30th
Notes on Jason Moore’s opening talk
-The planetary era began in 1492 (“the globe”) not in 1968 with earthrise photo
-the end of the world has already happened, many times.
-Man and Nature as “real abstractions” (non-European people and European women were considered part of nature); we must break down CP Snow’s two cultures, beyond “coupled systems” analysis, to a “flow fo flows” that integrates humans as earthlings
-“civilization” as a dangerous, colonial word? What is this term meant to denote? The opposite of savagery and barbarism?
-climate change as a “capitalogenic process” (what about Soviet and Chinese communist contributions?)
-“Nature is a class struggle” – “Nature” is part of the capitalist project
-we need more Marxist histories of climate change to avoid ceding the ground to neo-Malthusians
-the Earth has always been a historical actor; the present ecological crisis is not novel in this respect (see William Connolly’s “Facing the Planetary” and “The Fragility of Things”)
-climate is not exogenous to civilization and modes of production.
-Marx on labor as metabolic mediation between man and nature (man transforms nature, nature transforms man).
-from geology and history to geohistory
-Capitalism emerged out of late 15th century geographic expansion; credit, conquest, and coerced labor were essential (“capitalism’s triple helix in formation”)
-new world genocide led to regrowth of managed forests and CO2 dip, which led to little ice age; why didn’t this produce a terminal crisis in capitalism? Because of slavery frontier
-why is cotton gin not considered as important as steam engine as impetus for industrial revolution?
-“blue marble” photo of earth as “environmentalism of the rich”
-Marx acknowledged that human labor is itself a force of nature (?)
-alternative to collapse narrative (Jared Diamond)?
I’m posting a revised version of a long essay I wrote a decade ago. It draws on thinkers including Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alf Hornborg in search of a more integral approach to economics. I had not yet encountered the social ecology of Murray Bookchin when I wrote this essay, so my approach has shifted in emphasis even more strongly toward decentralization and localism, though as readers will see these values were already at the heart of my argument.
You’ll notice that in the first footnote, I left un-revised the world population as I recorded it when I originally composed this essay back in late 2009 (it was ~6.8 billion on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau). Today (February 2019), there are already a billion more people in existence (~7.8 billion total). It took all of human history until the year 1800–that is, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years–for the first billion people to inhabit the Earth. It took only a decade to produce a billion more people.
The table of contents, preface, and introduction are included below. You can find the whole essay as a PDF here: Towards an Integral Economics PDF (2019)
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is Life?
- The Irruption of Time
- Ancient Biology
- Modern Biology
- Teleology as Regulative
- Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive
- Concrescence and Bodily Perception
- Concrescence and Autopoiesis
- Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
- Integral Thought and Market Cosmology
- Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity
Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life
The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population1 and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on Earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.2 In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.
This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity, but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but Earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy3 into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.
The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on Earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).4 But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and Earth.
Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics5 by devouring the remaining resources of the Earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to
“give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noösphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).
Only with the full emergence of the noösphere can humanity become integral with the Earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).
Human societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued,
“…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).
I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by the dualistic ontology and fetishized mythology intrinsic to the industrial mode of consciousness. Powerful forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving and ruthlessly competing for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our natural capacity for empathic relationality is the psycho-social precursor that primed modern scientific consciousness for its reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution, and which consequently led to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic theory.
The mechanization of biology is typical of the deficient mental mode of consciousness. So long as our understanding of life remains deficient, our planetary civilization will continue to ignore humanity’s integral relationship with the Earth, and probably destroy itself within a century. In the chapters to follow, I argue that modern science’s mechanical theory of life is inseparable from the economic ideology of modern capitalism. The hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching our planet’s living population to the edge of extinction is given ideological steam by the mechanistic theory of life. My purpose in writing this book is to break through the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo and to plant the seeds of an alternative, living biology. I hope these seeds will aid humanity in our Great Work of becoming integral with the Earth, a partner in Gaia’s dance through the heavens.
Introduction: What is Life?
Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an
“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).
The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying as earthlings. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate a clear concept of life, which ambiguously straddles the apparent boundary between matter and spirit. The conscious human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life, and between matter and spirit, is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which
“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (177, ibid.).
Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present
“everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.).
But how are we to conceive of life’s wholeness or integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence, while an overly triumphant definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature.
My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (p. 320, Dennett).6 This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all connection whatsoever between human consciousness and the evolutionary adventure that generated it. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.
My critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism and reconstruction of an alternative conception of life on planet Earth draws upon the process-relational ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.
The approach of these two thinkers is an expression of what cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). The time element, repressed by the deficient mental structure’s exclusively spatial orientation, burst into consciousness in various ways during the past few centuries, including Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theory of history, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s relativity theory. But the mental structure, convinced it has reached the pinnacle of our species’ evolution, has not relinquished its hold on our consciousness. Now in its deficient phase, mental consciousness retards the emergence of the integral by continuing to falsely spatialize time, thereby reducing its qualitative creative intensity to a measurable quantity. The ideology of modern capitalism is an expression of the deficient mental structure’s repression of the time element, of creative becoming. Instead of recognizing the importance of the dialectic of history and the ongoing and entangled processes of natural and social transformation, capitalist economic theory insists that the present arrangement represents the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama has claimed): no revolutions in or improvements to social relations or in human-earth relations are necessary. Capitalist economists thus search for invariant laws supposed to apply universally to all human societies in all historical epochs. In contrast, an ecologized Marxist economic theory, building on the dialectical acuity of Hegel’s historical method, is better prepared to integrate the time element into its understanding of human society and the wider economy of Earth within which our economy is embedded. As the eco-Marxists Foster, Clark, and York describe it, Marx’s approach invites us to
“highlight the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred throughout human history and [argues] that what appear to be invariant laws to observers in any particular period, may in fact be transient tendencies unique to that historical era, emerging from the dialectical interaction of an ensemble of social and natural processes” (The Ecological Rift, p. 27).
In addition to the repression of time, Eco-Marxists also critique the techno-optimistic “human exemptionalism” that leads to fantasies about a future “dematerialization” of economic production such that
“the capitalist economy can then walk on air (or create a ‘weightless society’), thereby continuing its relentless expansion—but with a rapidly diminishing effect on the environment” (The Ecological Rift, p. 34, 43).
Such fantasies ignore both the zero-sum thermodynamic reality of the Earth system (thereby “[going] against the basic laws of physics” [ibid., 43]) and the inequality of human society (thereby going against the democratic principles of life, liberty, and happiness).
Gebser also points to the need to heal the rift, both ideological and metabolical, between humanity and the Earth. In the chapters to follow, I offer the beginnings of a more integral biology whose account of the biosphere includes human society as one of its expressions. “The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur,” according to Gebser, “at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384). The time element can only be authentically grasped by an integral consciousness. Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness and in particular the irruption of time in the mutation from deficient mental to integral consciousness thus provides the context for much of the discussion to follow.
1 ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.
2 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.
3 i.e., energy available to do work.
4 Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law. I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.
5 Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).
6 For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).
Here is anarchist anthropologist David Graeber on hierarchy in capitalism and how anthropological value theory can demystify its operations (from his essay, “TURNING MODES OF PRODUCTION INSIDE OUT: OR, WHY CAPITALISM IS A TRANSFORMATION OF SLAVERY”):
What I especially want to stress here though is that, when value is about the production of people, it is always entirely implicated in processes of transformation: families are created, grow, and break apart; people are born, mature, reproduce, grow old and die. They are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles—a process which is not limited to childhood but lasts until death—they are constantly being attended to and cared for. This is what human life is mainly about, what most people have always spent most of their time worrying about, what our passions, obsessions, loves and intrigues tend to center on, what great novelists and playwrights become famous for describing, what poetry and myth struggle to come to terms with, but which most economic and political theory essentially makes to disappear.
Why? It seems to happen, at least in part, because of the very mechanics of value realization. Value tends to be realized in a more public, or anyway political, and hence universalized domain than the domestic one in which it is (largely) created; that sphere is usually treated as it is to some degree transcendent, that is, as floating above and unaffected by the mundane details of human life (the special domain of women), having to do with timeless verities, eternal principles, absolute power—in a word, of something very like idealist abstractions. Most anthropological value analyses end up tracing out something of the sort: so Kayapo value tokens end up embodying the abstract value of “beauty”, a profound higher unity and completion especially embodied in perfect performances and communal ritual (Turner 1987 etc.); people practicing kula exchange seek “fame” (Munn 1986); Berbers of the Morroccan Rif, with their complex exchanges of gifts and blood-feud, pursue the values of honor and baraka, or divine grace (Jamous 1981) and so on. All of these are principles which, even when they are not identified with superhuman powers like gods or ancestors, even when they are not seen as literally transcendental principles, are seen as standing above and symbolically opposed to the messiness of ordinary human life and transformation. The same is usually true of the most valued objects, whose power to enchant and attract usually comes from the fact that they are represent frozen processes; if one conducts a sufficiently subtle analysis, one tends to discover that the objects that are the ultimate stakes of some field of human endeavor are, in fact, symbolic templates which compress into themselves those patterns of human action which create them.
It seems to me that even beyond the labor that constantly creating and reshaping human beings, a key unacknowledged, form of labor in human societies is precisely that which creates and maintains that illusion of transcendence. In most, both are performed overwhelmingly by women. A nice way to illustrate what I’m talking about here might be to consider the phenomenon of mourning. Rarely do the political careers of important individuals ends in death. Often political figure, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive. Mourning, and other acts of memorialization, could then be seen as an essential part of the labor of people-making—with the fact that the dead person is no longer himself playing an active role simply underlining how much of the work of making and maintaining a career is always done by others. Even the most cursory glance at the literature shows that the burden of such labor, here, tends to be very unevenly distributed. This is in fact especially true of the most dramatic forms—cutting off one’s hair, self-mutilation, fasting, wearing drab clothes, or sackcloth and ashes, or whatever is considered the culturally appropriate way to make oneself an embodiment of grief, as, essentially, negating oneself to express anguish over the loss of another. Social subordinates mourn their superiors and not the other way around. And pretty much everywhere, the burden of mourning falls disproportionately, and usually overwhelmingly, on women. In many parts of the world, women of a certain age are expected to exist largely as living memorials to some dead male: whether it be Hindu widows who must renounce all the tastiest foods, or Catholic women in the rural Mediterranean who are likely to spend at least half their lives wearing black. Needless to say these women almost never receive the same recognition when they die, and least of all from men.
The point though is that symbolic distinctions between high and low do not come from some pre-existing “symbolic system”, they are continually constructed in action, and the work of doing so is done disproportionally by those who are effectively defining themselves as lower. So with mourning. As Bloch and Parry (1982) have emphasized, mourning is also about creating dramatic contrasts between what is considered truly permanent, and everything that is corporeal, transitory, afflicted with the possibility of grief and pain, subject to corruption and decay. Mourners when they cover themselves in dirt or ashes, or engage in other practices of the negation of the self which seem surprisingly similar across cultures, are also making themselves the embodiment of the transitory, bodily sphere as against another, transcendental one which is in fact created in large part through their doing so. The dead themselves have become spirits, they are ethereal beings or bodiless abstractions, or perhaps they are embodied in permanent monuments like tombs or beautiful heirlooms, or buildings left in their memory—usually, in fact, it’s a bit of both—but it’s the actions of the mourners, mainly by the dramatic negation of their own bodies and pleasures, that constantly recreate that extremely hierarchical contrast between pure and impure, higher and lower, heaven and earth.
It is sometimes said that the central notion of modernism is that human beings are projects of self-creation. What I am arguing here is that we are indeed processes of creation, but that most of the creation is normally carried out by others. I am also arguing that almost all the most intense desires, passions, commitments, and experiences in most people’s lives—family dramas, sexual intrigue, educational accomplishment, honor and public recognition, one’s hope for one’s children and grandchildren, one’s dreams of posterity after one is dead—have revolved precisely around these processes of the mutual creation of human beings, but that the mechanics of value creation tend to disguise this by positing some higher sphere, where of economic values, or idealist abstractions. This is essential to the nature of hierarchy (Graeber 1997) and the more hierarchical the society, the more this tends to happen. Finally, I am suggesting that it is precisely these mechanisms that make it possible for historians and social scientists to create such odd simplifications of human life and human motivations. The labor of creating and maintaining people and social relations (and people are, in large measure, simply the internalized accretion of their relations with others) ends up being relegated, at least tacitly, to the domain of nature—it becomes a matter of demographics or ‘reproduction’—and the creation of valuable physical objects becomes the be-all and end all of human existence.”
And here is statistician Nicholas Taleb (from this excerpt of Skin in the Game) offering what he calls a “more rigorous” definition of inequality, which when applied to the contemporary US population, shows relatively high “dynamic” equality:
There is a class often called the Mandarins, after the fictional memoirs of the French author Simone de Beauvoir, named after the scholars of the Ming dynasty that gave their name to the high Chinese language. I have always been aware of its existence, but its salient —and pernicious –attribute came to me while observing the reactions to the works by the French economist Thomas Pikkety.
Pikkety followed Karl Marx by writing an ambitious book on Capital. I received the book as a gift when it was still in French (and unknown outside France) because I found it commendable that people publish their original, nonmathematical work in social science in book format. The book, Capital in the 21st Century, made aggressive claims about the alarming rise of inequality, added to a theory of why capital tended to command too much return in relation to labor and how absence of redistribution and dispossession would make the world collapse. The theory about the increase in the return of capital in relation to labor was patently wrong, as anyone who has witnessed the rise of what is called the “knowledge economy” (or anyone who has had investments in general) knows. But there was something far, far more severe than a scholar being wrong.
Soon, I discovered that the methods he used were flawed: Picketty’s tools did not show what he purported about the rise in inequality. I soon wrote two articles, one in collaboration with Raphael Douady that we published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Applications, about the measure of inequality that consists in taking the ownership of, say the top 1% and monitoring its variations. The flaw is that if you take the inequality thus measured in Europe as a whole, you will find it is higher than the average inequality across component countries; the bias increases in severity with extreme processes. The same defect applied to the way inequality researchers used a measure called Gini coefficient, and I wrote another paper on that. All in all, the papers had enough theorems and proofs, to make them about as ironclad a piece of work one can have in science; I insisted on putting the results in theorem form because someone cannot contest a formally proved theorem without putting in question his own understanding of mathematics.
The reason these errors were not known was because economists who worked with inequality were not familiar with… inequality. Inequality is the disproportion of the role of the tail—rich people were in the tails of the distribution. The more inequality in the system, the more the winner-take-all effect, the more we depart from the methods of tin-tailed Mediocristan in which economists were trained. Recall that the wealth process is dominated by winner-take-all effects, the type described in The Black Swan. Any form of control of the wealth process—typically instigated by bureaucrats—tended to lock people with privileges in their state of entitlement. So the solution was to allow the system to destroy the strong, something that worked best in the United States.
The problem is never the problem; it is how people handle it. What was worse than the Piketty flaws was the discovery of how that Mandarin class operates. They got so excited by the rise of inequality that their actions were like fake news. Economists completely ignored my results—and when they didn’t, it was to declare that I was “arrogant” (recall that the strategy of using theorems is that they can’t say I was wrong, so they resorted to “arrogant” which is a form of scientific compliment). Even Paul Krugman who had written “if you think you’ve found an obvious hole, empirical or logical, in Piketty, you’re very probably wrong. He’s done his homework!”[iv], when I pointed out the flaw to him, when I met him in person, evaded it –not necessarily by meanness but most likely because probability and combinatorics eluded him, by his own admission.
Now consider that the likes of Krugman and Piketty have no downside in their existence—lowering inequality brings them up in the ladder of life. Unless the university system or the French state go bust, they will continue receiving their paycheck. Donald Trump is exposed to the risk of ending having his meals in a soup kitchen; not them.
Further, the envy-driven feelings that usually—as we saw in the works of Williams and Lamont—do not originate from the impoverished classes, concerned with the betterment of their condition, but with that of the clerical class. Simply, it looks like it is the university professors (who have arrived) and people who have permanent stability of income, in the form of tenure, governmental or academic, who bought heavily in the argument. From the conversations, I became convinced that these people who counterfactual upwards (i.e. compare themselves to those richer) wanted to actively dispossess the rich. As will all communist movements, it is often the bourgeois or clerical classes that buy first into the argument.
I doubt Piketty asked blue-collar Frenchmen what they want, as Lamont did. I am certain that they would ask for a new dishwasher, or faster train for their commute, not to bring down some rich businessman invisible to them. Envy does not work long distance, or across so many social classes. But, again, people can frame questions and portray enrichment as theft, as it was before the French Revolution, in which case the blue-collar class would ask, once again, for heads to roll.
I offer them for side-by-side comparison to highlight their divergence on the most pressing problem of political economy today (=inequality). [These two once had it out on Twitter.]
To define inequality one has to first offer, implicitly or explicitly, a metaphysics of value. Both Graeber and Taleb are passing metaphysical value judgments on the present state of our global economy in the above excerpts. Graeber foregrounds the values of anthropoiesis (human-making; i.e., values manifesting through child-rearing, housekeeping, cooking, educating, mourning, etc.), while Taleb foregrounds the values of chrematistics (money-making; i.e., value as symbolic wealth accumulation). Taleb tries to out-resent the “intellectual yet idiot” professional class (a class he includes Graeber, professor at the London School of Economics, in) for its communistic resentment of the capitalist values apparently shared by blue-collar workers and “self-made” millionaires like him.
Graeber tries to articulate an axiology rooted in social bonds and kin relations, while Taleb seems to champion a Nietzschean version of the myth of individual self-creation. Both approaches are anthropocentric (though Graeber has elsewhere shown signs of accepting a more panpsychist origin of value), but still, each should be part of a more inclusive cosmological scheme. I think Whitehead’s scheme brings together the best of both socialist-relationalist and individualist-atomist ontologies.
If we continue to let chrematistics rule the world, if we continue to believe in the “free-market” God of capitalism, not only will the value of anthropoiesis continue to be exploited and externalized, the entire biosphere will be eradicated. “Communism” isn’t the answer. But our cultural and natural ecologies of value cannot continue to be monopolized by capital, either. Money is not the measure of all things. Value originates closer to home. Perhaps it is time for the Left to reclaim “family values” just as boldly as it has claimed environmentalism.
I’m about halfway through The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward Baptist.
Baptist’s book embeds an economic history of post-revolutionary America in the personal stories of slaves. He brings into question the still dominant version of American history, “the half that has ever been told,” which argues that slavery was an old world anomaly set apart from the rest of the early nation’s growing capitalist economy. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventions,” writes Baptist, “but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor” (xviii). Painting slavery as somehow outside the modern capitalist system–more a drag than a boost to America’s young economy–meant that none of the massive quantities of wealth accumulated as a result of the cotton trade could be claimed to be owed to African Americans.
Many white historians have long argued that slave labor was less efficient than paid labor, and that market forces made its eventual demise inevitable. The evils of slavery, they argue, are reducible to the denial of liberal subjectivity to enslaved African Americans. “Surely,” writes Baptist, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one of them president–to make amends” (xix).
By tracing the westward expansion of US borders from the 1780s to 1860, Baptist unveils a more troubling reality. As the borders of the young nation expanded and its economy boomed, so, too, did the slave industry. From the time the Revolutionary War ended to the start of the Civil War 80 years later, America’s slave population quintupled. During the same time period, enslavers marched about 1 million men, women, and children chained in heavy iron coffles hundreds of miles southwest from the old slave states to the new frontier states (xxiii). US cotton exports soared after white enslavers developed elaborate methods of torture to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people (e.g., one lash for every pound a slave fell short of his or her daily quota). Slave labor thus “rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market” (xxi).
“What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolutely necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient. Faith in that a priori is very useful. It means we never have to resolve existential contradictions between productivity and freedom” (130-131).
In 1800 the US exported fewer than 200,000 bales of cotton per year (a bale is a compressed box of cotton weighing about 450 pounds). By 1860, exports had skyrocketed to 4 million bales (1 billion 800 million pounds) per year, such that 75% of the cotton imported by Britain’s textile mills was being picked by slaves in American labor camps. 19th century African American slaves worked the land of their owners to produce massive amounts of the most important raw material powering the industrial revolution. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that African Americans carried as much economic weight as steam engines during the same timeframe.
“Both South and North depended on slavery’s expansion. The products generated form the possibilities of co-exploitation explain much of the nation’s astonishing rise to power in the 19th century. Through the booms and the crashes emerged a financial system that continuously catalyzed the development of US capitalism. By the 1840s, the US had grown into both an empire and a world economic power–the second greatest industrial economy, in fact, in the world–all built on the back of cotton” (413).
Baptist’s historical research can serve an emancipatory role in the present. Along with reminding us of the collective need to address the historical trauma of slavery, Baptist’s book returns our attention to the inherent contradictions of the still expanding global capitalist market. Capitalism is an economic model predicated upon the exploitation of labor and land so as to “generate” (that is, steal) a monetary profit. In reality, capitalism generates nothing but (unequally distributed and thus sociopolitically powerful) symbols. All real physical generation is done by Gaia and her organisms. Despite neoliberal fantasies, the soul’s salvation cannot be achieved by transforming all bodies into commodities, by giving everything on earth a price tag and reducing it through one innovative financial instrument or another into a universal quantitative value so that it can be traded on the global market to the highest bidder. The generativity of earth and her creatures is inversely proportional to the productivity of the global marketplace. As GDP goes up, Gaia’s carrying capacity goes down. This contradiction in capitalism is referred to by ecomarxists as a “metabolic rift.”
That capitalism is inherently exploitative is clear. It was not the inherent logic of the market that ended slavery, but the agonizingly slow evolution of the American conscience. If anything, the capitalist profit-motive was the primary engine driving the intensification of slavery during the 19th century.
What is not clear is where we are to go from here. The first step must be refusing the nihilistic justification of capitalism offered by neoliberalism (that it is the best we can hope for given the greed and selfishness inherent to “human nature”). We have not always been capitalists. We need to fight against the inertia of the present and continue struggling to unleash the latent potentials of our species, such as our capacity for justice. “Never forget,” Cornel West reminds us, “that justice is what love looks like in public.”
With ecological catastrophe looming, economic instability as the new norm, and the political sphere reaching a boiling point, the path forward is fraught with difficulty. References to “love” are apt to feel sentimental. Yet it may be that only a miracle can save us now. “Miracles do happen,” Whitehead acknowledged; “but it is unwise to expect them.”
Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.
I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university? What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.
Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.
But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.
I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”
CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts says, “with the practical transformation of human consciousness.”
I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist. Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of new worlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”
I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.
Blow rightly points out why Trump’s campaign manager is sorely mistaken about the prospects of winning over Bernie’s supporters in the general election. It’s not going to happen. Yes, there is a shared distrust of Hillary. But the similarities end there.
But Blow is also missing the point. Bernie’s support is not coming from people who think the political system is broken. The political system is actually functioning exactly as it has been designed to function. Bernie’s supporters are angry because democracy has been replaced by neoliberal capitalism. Voting has thus been reduced to another consumer choice based on brand identity. The two-party system is designed to protect the super wealthy from the threat of growing class consciousness. The two major parties do everything they can to prevent large sectors of the population from thinking about the real causes of the socioeconomic imbalances in our system and instead find ways to divide up the electorate based on identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Not that there are not injustices that need our attention in these areas (Trump’s rise shows we have lots of work to do on this front). But by continuing to allow the oligarchs to frame our political process for us, we remain vulnerable to the temptation to continue fighting with one another over the table scraps they throw us. Identity politics has played an important part in the process of liberation for marginalized peoples, but thus far this liberation has only been allowed to unfold in the framework set by neoliberal capitalism. In other words, the civil rights movements for women and for black, gay, and lesbian people have succeeded in securing many of the legal protections afforded white men (again, more work remains on the cultural front). But the framework these liberatory movements have unfolded within assures that the most that can be achieved is equal status as a wage-earning consumer within the capitalist profit-machine. I recognize that my positionality as a white male makes it perhaps all too easy for me to say this, and I welcome other perspectives to help me see my blind spots, but it seems to me that at this point in the game we need to begin recognizing the various identities we employ to brand ourselves are a means of political transformation, rather than an end. If they are an end in themselves, then the transformational process can only produce further social fragmentation among the 99%, thus further inhibiting our collective ability to overthrow oligarchy. Does equality mean equal right to work 60 hours a week for stagnant wages so we can all afford to lease a car, pay rent, and send our kids to college to become indentured servants to banks for the rest of their lives? Maybe we’ve forgotten what individual freedom and social flourishing really mean.
There is more at stake in this election than the mainstream media’s talking heads are allowed to let on. What does the next century hold in store for America? Capitalism’s fantasy of never-ending economic growth is being severely challenged by the ecological and social crises. Back when capitalism was first establishing itself, colonial theft of unspoiled land and labor from non-Europeans made it seem like profits would never end. In the 20th century, capital relied upon the energy produced by fossil fuel to replace all that emancipated slave labor (though of course it still depends upon the wage-slavery of large sectors of the “developing” world). But now the petroleum interval is ending, the third-world is demanding higher wages, and the Earth is reminding us that its carrying capacity is not unlimited. From this point forward, capitalism can only secure growth by making sure 99% of us remain insecure and continue to bicker at one another about “family values.” Divide and conquer: it is the oldest ruling class strategy for domination in the book. The oligarchy is counting on us to continue believing that there are no economically viable alternatives to capitalism.
In reality, there has never been a better opportunity to fundamentally transform the economic model that has gotten us into this social and ecological crisis. Whether we look to the secular approach of Naomi Klein or the spiritual approach of Pope Francis for this transformation, let us not forget that there is hope on multiple fronts.
Hard to disagree with too much of what Pinker and Goldstein say about Reason. Yay Reason, right?! They also make a very persuasive case for (neo)liberal capitalism. Pinker’s bit about empathy was a nice reprieve, but Goldstein shut him up fast by recounting Reason’s historical march toward the Good. In the end, I prefer Schelling’s, Hegel’s, or Marx’s mythologies of Reason to P. and G’s. Then there is Whitehead’s stab at a history of Reason, which I’m still trying to make sense of.
Contra P. and G., I think we really need to think again about the legacy of liberalism (and by proxy our looming neoliberal future, should we choose not to think otherwise). I think our civilization is faced with a crossroads: either continue to modernize, or avert planetary collapse by ecologizing (to borrow Bruno Latour’s way of phrasing it). One direction leads straight into extinction, for our species and for most of the other megafauna on earth. The other direction leads to what the Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb is calling an ecological civilization (Cobb has a big conference coming up on this in June: http://www.ctr4process.org/whitehead2015). Thomas Berry called it the Ecozoic Era. Latour calls it a Gaian Religion (https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/03/12/discussing-bruno-latours-gaian-political-theology/).
But do we really still need to bash religion, as they do at the end? What is P. and G.’s video really preaching (and every TED video, really) but that Reason (which all too often is reduced to science and technology) must become our new religion? Fine. Let’s praise Reason! But what is Reason? Let’s not pretend it is simply logic and objectivity that drives us to be reasonable. If Reason is to drive us anywhere, it must call upon our feelings and our desires. Reason without desire is aimless, impotent; without feeling, it is dumb and blind. Our rational and emotional natures must work in concert for life to be possible. When P. and G. joke about getting rid of religion, they pretend that we could be rational (i.e., have mastered our thinking) without also having come into right relationship with our feelings and our desires. Religion is an activity primarily concerned with finding viable ways of relating to the pain and to the love of life, and also to the pain of love, and yes, to the love of pain. In some Christian traditions this whole complex perichoresis of life, love, and pain is nicely summed up in the word (and story of Christ’s) Passion. Modern societies have always needed religious practices and discourses in order for Reason to continue to believe in itself as the new God. Today we still need religious practices and discourses to remind us that Reason itself is a work of love freely carried out. Religion is what allows us to relate to love and to pain in public, communally. It is only modern Enlightenment liberalism that has privatized religion, where it festers still today in parts of America. We don’t need more “private” religion based on personal dreams and wish-fulfillment. We need collective rituals and planetary liturgies that form cross-cultural church communities–that is, that form planetary political bodies–to help us convince each other to decommission our nuclear arsenals and stop treating the animals we happen to think are tasty like soulless machines. Reason needs religion to put its ideas into heartfelt action.
Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.
This is not a metaphor. At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels. This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants. All living and social being is solar in its origin.
I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?
Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,
must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).
Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.
Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:
For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.
[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.
I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.
I’m headed back to Black Rock City for the 3rd time in 4 years later this week. I’ll be camping with Cosmicopia at 7:15 J if you want to stop by. I’ll be giving a brief talk on the need to ecologize economics on Tuesday at 11am. The title of the talk is actually a set of related questions: “Why is the sky blue? Why is money green?” The sky is blue because of the way Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light streaming in from the Sun during the day. At night, the sky turns black to reveal the swarm of distant suns populating the Milky Way. All the energy powering the human economy, and the greater part of the intelligence engineering it, originated in the sky. The daytime Sun is the most important source of free energy for all living things, while for one species in particular (ours) the rhythmic revolutions of the nighttime stars served as the catalyst for the evolution of symbolic consciousness (some of the earliest known forms of writing, for example, are marks carved into bone, apparently to count the phase cycle of the moon). Gazing at the stars and planets circling overhead night after night taught us how to keep track of time and how to travel long distances over land or sea. Our ability to plan months and years in advance, to draw maps and send satellites into orbit: we owe it all to the stars. And to the Sun we owe our very life, our vitality, our source of absolutely free energy. The original biotic economy of Earth (here long before the emergence of the human economy) consists of two main economic actors: the Sun and the photosynthesizing plants. This cosmic economy is the original gift society. The Sun is slowing burning itself up to release the warmth and light necessary for life on Earth. It asks for nothing in exchange for its exuberance. Plants absorb this free energy, transforming themselves into food for the rest of the biosphere all the way up the trophic ladder to Earth’s apex predator, the human being.
American money (at least for a little while longer the world economy’s gold standard), like plants, is green. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but if we consider the capitalist world system as a form of sorcery (as Isabelle Stengers does), then this choice of color reflects the extent to which money has been fetishized, as though the symbolic power of green paper was somehow a replacement for the photosynthetic energy captured by the leaves of plants. General purpose money truly is the life blood of global capitalism; but plant-like it is not. It should be printed red, instead. That would remind us how much blood has been spilled on its behalf.
Political ecologist Alf Hornborg (author of “The Power of the Machine”) describes general purpose money as an “algorithm of destruction” because of the way it systematically cancels the living diversity of both culture and nature by converting usable energy (labor, soil, minerals, trees, rivers, etc.) into disposable products sold in order to make more copies of itself. For this reason, an increasing GDP is typically a great indicator of decreasing societal and ecological well-being. Global capitalism is converting more and more of the free energy brought into the biosphere by plants into money. To date, geneticist David Suzuki estimates that the global economy has re-directed about 40% of the net energy intake of plants to serve its higher purposes (i.e., accumulating money). Its no wonder the planet is entering the 6th mass extinction.
In my talk at Burning Man, I hope to make apparent how incongruent the human economy currently is with the earth ecology. I also want to begin a discussion about the role of Burning Man in all this. According to the festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. He’s not entirely off the mark. I’d agree that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism… I’ll be trying to dig deeper into these and other internal contradictions.