Sunday, April 13, 2014


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
We'll look deeper into the roots and history of Western technological development in future posts, this essay looks to position the last several posts in a cultural narrative I imagine about the world I've found myself in. It is not an academic world although the products of academia feature prominently in it. Careful thinking and the clear communication of ideas are among my most avid tastes and I find them there and in certain books and blogs. My own lack of clarity is a sort of public airing of my intellectual disorganization, and for that I apologize. Reality is infinitely granular and, constrained as we are by the filter of our own senses and consciousness, not particularly available to us. So all history is in some ways potted, and I make no secrete here of my abuse of it to frame some larger points I've thought more carefully about.

As Ian Morris posits in "Why the West Rules for Now", Europe has been at the center of one of the two dominant competing world civilizations for five or six thousand years now. If you haven't read his book, I highly recommend it. The late Renaissance European world of proto-capitalism is where I'll start my story. It really begins with the Magna Carta wherein through direct contests of power an English King acquiesced to certain textually specified rights amongst his "subjects", conditions delimiting their scope of subjugation. This process of establishing by written record highly specific agreements on highly specific limits to highly specified powers has been a sort of background radiation underpinning what has actually been progressive in our bloody last eight hundred years.

That this form of agreement established itself in the particular moment of thirteenth century England was central, I believe to England becoming an early dominant industrial power. The kinds of specific restraints on power and particular institutions built to safeguard them became the backbone on which the powerful built their own rights to manage what we would come to consider "economic" activities, a subset of production regarding the management of surpluses and the benefits accruing from them. These activities developed as a fairly stable infrastructure beneath a superstructure of political power competition concerned with the allocation of lands and the populations they housed viewed primarily as organic bodies from which political heads drew their sustaining blood, whether in war or peace.

Language at this juncture was the primary fissure in otherwise fairly homogeneous populations around the fertile plains and valley's of the continent. The cultural lines thus defined became the increasing focus of aristocrats competitions to ennoble their respective political bodies. The viciousness of the results tended to prepare the way
for subsequent manipulations and predations in a process supercharged by the Reformation after which blasphemy could be ladled over xenophobia to justify the most depraved tribalism.

The stunning bloodiness of the European wars of religion between the 11th and 17th centuries, particularly the 30 Years War, ultimately resulted in constitutional separations of Church and State whereby religious difference could be deprived of legitimacy granted the levers of violence as pulled by kings. By this point, dissenting faithful from most European lands had sought refuge in the dessolated gardens of the New World creating an American condition where some of the most important founders of this country were devoutly religious while many of their friends were equally religious but of different faiths, or ambivalently religious in the mode of the concurrent European enlightenment embodied in the popular American Congregationalism. They knew their history and did not want it repeated at their own hands, or those of their friends. They knew the recent comparative histories of righteously intolerant Spain and tolerant, cosmopolitan England and Holland, and the competition between these states that had been won by the adaptability that tolerance affords.

Choosing to conserve the widely experienced material benefits of the Dutch and English colonization of the Americas, the competing devotional groups of the multiple American colonies chose to overlook their sectional differences. By setting aside the detailed constraints of their competing orthodoxies, the colonists were able to arrive at functional agreements that left each free to pursue faith until it’s pursuit adversely affected others. Of course these judgements and tolerances neglected to interrogate the underlying dependence of the entire enterprise on the institution of slavery, having compartmentalized the issue culturally by crafting the concept of race. So the second sons of Europe's aristocracy sought their fortunes in the abandoned gardens of the Americas that smallpox had rid of gardeners who's works were now tended by imported slaves. 

This was peripheral to, but part and parcel of the rapidly evolving English politics of the time: Cromwell’s’ revolution, James’ restoration, William of Oranges occupation, slaveries’ abolition (in England at least) were all events that pitted established community interests in competition and who’s resolutions, first achieved at blades edge of sword or scythe, created the cultural velocity and vector toward the modern representative republicanism we call democracy and toward capitalism. English Common Law was an evolving institution of practicality upon which history forced norms of production and distribution that afforded "utilitarians" the tools to concentrate the benefits of surpluses adequate to reward speculation in new modes of production. It mediated between the rights and obligations of historically defined political entities, at first each according to the force they could muster, eventually each according to established rights. The parliamentary system that evolved came into being to address the inevitable and unpredictable changes that time predictably brought to bear on existing institutions and their balance of power, but always with an eye towards preserving those rights of the powerful most necessary for maintenance of control.

Serfs were made wage earners and then stripped of autonomy by a deliberate wage race to the bottom, their own health, and in the case of Ireland even survival, made externalities to markets, liberating the aristocracy of any obligation to their subject people. Lords owed their surfs protection and succor in times of general hardship, with the abolition of serfdom England's Lords shed what obligations they chose and used state coercion to force nominally free citizens into shockingly exploitative working conditions. As common law sanctioned these abuses in the mother country, the English Aristocracy tried to impose similar coercions on its colonies in the new world. Unfortunately for the Crown, it was to discover that the commons in the New World were to expansive for it to police along domestic lines. 

The American secession from English rule was not so much a revolution when one examines the day to day consequences for those who participated as a restoration of common law due process that, unjustly in the eyes of the colonists, the King had arrogated to himself. It represents a break down in the process by which English law had historically assimilated newly evolved power centers, a breakdown unnecessarily driven by the misapplied ideals of a particularly obtuse leader. The debate in America between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans was primarily about limiting the degree to which the new system would differ from its’ parent system in England, and unlike the French or Russian Revolutions which did aspire to overturn entire political infrastructures, the American Evolution was relatively bloodless in its’ internal operations, being primarily deliberative instead. It was practical which is to say unorthodox. It was also deeply conservative of a specific set of values among which was slavery.

The robustness of the American republic for its’ first 230 years has been tested a number of times. In its’ first century it was transfigured by calamity into a clearer representation of its’ founding ideals after generations of struggle against the ancient orthodoxy of human bondage. Again in its’ second century after generations of retreat from stated purpose the American people rose to the occasion for the defeat of Fascism and Communism, new orthodoxies that equally sought to enslave. As The United States enters its third century, it is again in retreat from its’ ideals. Markets have become master, no longer the servant of man. The same tools that underwrote the Irish "famine", to the economic benefit of English aristocrats have been re-incarnated and rolled out across the world through the Anglo American institutions of the World Bank and IMF, institutions built for progressive goals who's meaning has been inverted since the end of the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods arrangements. Equally, religion again is an excuse for carnage in the name of orthodoxy and between them religion and neo-liberal orthodoxy have made our political language a machine of obfuscation and disintegration. 

The institutional order imagined and built by the Allies in the last centuries’ great war against fascism was so robust and effective that several generations spent their entire lives beneath the its’ effective penumbra and missed the tipping points where changes in scale, a product of unimaginable success, destroyed key feed back mechanisms. These breakdowns were met not with repair, but with roll back, with deregulation which is in fact the de-criminalization of activities established in the progressive era to be fraudulent. The circumscriptions the New Deal had put on market and money power were dismantled rather than renovated and the abuses that conjured the progressive movements of the late nineteenth century have all returned with a vengeance. The market is an artifact of man, as was religion before it, and language before that; they have greatly changed us, but we made them, our humanity came first. When these things, these institutions of humanity no longer serve us but arbitrarily demand our sacrifice, it is time to re-cast them. This is such a time.

As humans, we are animals. Our animal nature will never disappear though we renovate our habitat in infinite ways. The result is we become alienated from our habitat and frequently, as a consequence of that, our community. We are no less human and no less social animals to the extent we have become alienated, but our actions no longer seem comprehensible to those not sharing our displaced condition. We are evolved for a physical environment that no longer exists and to live in familial communities that only a lucky few now find familiar around them. This displacement has happened organically as a result of species success, but in no way does it support any deterministic notion of progress going forward. I've tried to be clear above that to the extent there has been real progress it has been in building institutions that entrench the rights of marginal populations. I would add that such populations have been growing a rate roughly proportionate to these extensions of rights. It is precisely these institutions that are most threatened at present.

The increasingly vast infrastructure of civilization has displaced most of its beneficiaries from any direct moral experience of the power of the systems they now inhabit. This insulation from direct moral experience makes the abuses of our fellow humans by systems we depend on invisible and even quite comfortable to live with. This is a recrudescence of the historical tolerance of slavery that has encumbered civilization as its great moral failing from the outset. These systems of our own creation are powerful tools that our animal impulse chooses to view as "environmental" and is satisfied with to the extent such treatment leaves those pursuing it with some adequate control over themselves. Our social nature lets us satisfy ourselves with relative position too easily without looking at the underpinnings of our immediate environment in vast diffuse exploitations around the globe carried on in our name and in the darkness of neglect to which we consign them morally.

Systems define the carrying capacity of the world we have made for ourselves. The IPCC reports make it perfectly clear that there remains no unspoiled "nature" on this earth, that we are remaking it to our conscious and unconcious will whether we intend or not. As social beasts, we have built elaborate structures to support and expand that sociability. Our success has been to increase our biomass burden on the real ecology from which we ultimately derive our lives well beyond the carrying capacity of the known and currently existing systems. This is not a council of despair, but it is an advocacy of focused change: the world itself is changing because we are changing it. That our effects are more a result of neglect than intent in no way mitigates them. We must will ourselves to understand the systems we have made and the constraints under which they hold us even to the degree we don't even recognize them as systems. My last series of posts has tried to build an individual perspective from which to view our inherited systems, following this post I'll delve into what I'll call "Social Contracts" that are the foundations from which civilization itself sprang: Language, Religion and War. Following that I'll look at some of the newer systems and their invisible operations and all to visible effects.

We share the planet at present with one in fifteen of the total humanity to have ever lived. Through pure force of demographics, understanding how our infrastructures work and why, how we benefit and suffer from them and at what cost has more consequence, more meaning than ever before. Questions of civilizations abilities to project themselves into a future have been raised in the hydrocarbon, atomic and bio tech eras in ways more immediate and deadly and for larger populations than ever before. There are more people, more action, more inaction and more unintended consequences than ever before. This is why character demands that we take the side of our species over our ideologies or even faiths. People, those warm damp fragrant and aural things we continue to experience unmediated, who beguile like the infant before language and shame like those we offend, people matter more than faith or words because experience tells us that even when what we say does not agree, in our hearts mostly we do, and together we must make the most of it. This is the essence of our humanity that has made us as prosperous as we now are.

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