Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Disco Inferno

I was recently reading Thomas Sowell, the Stanford economist who for whatever reason chooses to ass to his comfortable income by also writing as a syndicated right-wing hack.  Sowell wrote of being a young Marxist as a 1950's undergrad and while such conversion stories are suspicious sometimes I can take him on his word here. There are plenty of Marxist economists.  There are plenty of hardcore laissez-faire economists. Those who have been both are a great deal more common than those who do not believe that their own field is the One Great Truth that all others flow from one way or the other.  Never tell a baker that you don't like cookies.

In the first chapter of Europe Central there is an actor who pretends to be Lenin's already dead failed assassin in order to appease Lenin's mercy-inclined wife. (Yes this really happened BTW) Lenin's wife accuses the fake shooter of being "in the middle." She assumes that no one could prioritize free elections or civil liberties over controlling the means of production unless they were cravens who'd been intentionally seeking out the safe middle ground. I think this reveals something about how some come to believe that paradise is a place where mass executions are routine. Extremism is not bad Because it is extremism; and there's no truth to the notion that the right answer in a conflict is inclined to be in the middle. The middle position is neither more or less likely to be correct than the extremes. Indeed the very act of framing the spectrum its center and its left and right frontiers is itself an arbitrary choice. Nothing at all is inherently moderate or extreme independent of necessarily artificial paradigms. The possibility for using belief as a vehicle for being reasonable or bold does not exist. Whether you or I are bold enough to be radical or sober enough to be conventional is of no consequence.

The fundamental truths of humankind cannot possibly be about you or I in particular. That I suppose is the main thing that makes the fanatic wrong. I do not doubt that they are highly sincere in wanting to improve the world. (and violence does 'sometimes' make the world better than leaving what it destroys intact would have) But ultimately they are less concerned with improving the world than they are with personal identity, with seeing themselves as worthy, brave, strong and of unique generational importance. Nietzsche did not mean "God is Dead" as a taunt. In fact he correctly predicted the near-term hazard; that as religion declined the mental habits of a Europe accustomed to dogmatic grandeur & a view of itself as historically and civilizationly central would remain; that nationalism and other ideologies would become violently insistent. The easiest way to feel assured that we are not wasting our timebombed lives is to feel assured that we spend or lives doing universally mandatory things; and the supposedly ultra-group oriented Soviets were in truth eager inheritors of the Christian assumption that ultimate truth must define individual purpose before all else.

Commenters sometimes describe the modern Jihadists as "nihilists".  That's a famously overused word on this matter and others.  But I do agree that there is some level of a "fuck everything" impulse behind violent dogmatism.  The idea of a truth more important than life can be a platform for vengeance against a world that dares continue being a place where enjoyable things happen after we die. The deliberate eagerness with which fanatics destroy entire human worlds, cities, parks, monuments that have stood for a thousand years. Whole communities of people murdered with orgasmic joy; their bonds to a century and a half through memory and relationship destroyed for that very sake. It's the Year Zero idea; everything that came before me was either meaningless, contemptible or there for no other sake but to bring me about.  While everything that comes after me shall be as I invented it in all details forever. It goes beyond the obvious fact that we all want to be important.  It is about becoming convinced that Warsaw has always been important Because I am destroying it right now, that my murder victims are important because I am the one murdering them.  The obvious thing to say is that it is like being a god but not quite.  The impact of being a nurturing Christ is problematically quiet though it may be vast. The impact of Burning Everything The Fuck Down is much more immediately obvious. It's the messianic impulse gone sour in the sun. The wounded feel of something one expected from life not being there. Not necessarily poverty or repression or desperation or injustice. Perhaps some wholly irrational entitlement born of false gender or ethnic superiority.  But some wounded absence even still. 

And of course the apocalypse impulse can linger at a slow burn for a long time before blowing up in self-fulfilling prophecy. The USA; which is in truth exceptionally calm at the moment, all things considered, has a famously robust Armageddon industry.  One that is most popular not among white rural "rednecks" but white well-to-do suburbanites who find that the nation is not quite so literally "theirs" as they were led to expect.

Toward the end of Europe Central a doomed Warmacht soldier speaks of the books of Goethe becoming cosmic dust in a thousand years while he fires at the Russians. I like to think that in his last moments the scales had fallen from his eyes to reveal the true enemy. That he was now at war with the pompous spirit of early modern Europe that had murdered his world and various others beyond Europe in the centuries before.


In the "Feminine Mystique" Betty Friedan writes that while Freud made important insights about hidden sexual desires he also went overboard in his impulse to tie all vagaries of the mind to the "hard science" of the body. This seems to be the consensus on Freud today.  There are endless onion layers of irony in his neurotic need for 'Hard Truths' but save that for some other time maybe. The Ivy Tower and Ground level world have both long been infected by a notion that to proclaim objective truth is to be a priest-like authority entitled to deference and admiration; while to argue theory is to be some guy. This notion is exacerbated by the false authority that societies place on whiteness, maleness, Brahminess, any number of things in all the myriad cultures. Socially favored people are under special pressure to Know. Friedan states that Freud was influenced by this pressure. I would say that its mark can be found in the insistent universality of Marx and Hayek both.  Which brings us back to old Thomas Sowell.

Sowell is a black conservative; such as there must be more than none of and is not my own place or dare I say anyone else's to damn him for. It is however clear that the man resents with a new lover's passion. I would guess that he imagines himself in a contest for prestige with other academics like Toni Morrison or Angela Davis and resents that he is not viewed as the inarguable victor over those he sees as bubble-headed deviants. I've said before that dogmatic zeal remains the norm within economics. These are people who want very badly to be Hard Scientists yet to study economics is to study a realm of subjective human behavior; and the history of thought in this field is one of epic denial that they exist in the same realm as the hippies off in English and sociology.

Sometimes a black public conservative will take on the task of calling out liberals as The Real Racists and this tawdry business is one that Sowell takes on with glee. In one of these columns he mentions that Milton Friedman, the famous laissez-faire economist and Sowell's old colleague, could not have been racist because he had a black secretary who stayed at his side for decades. As for the fact that Sowell seriously made the argument that a white man who has a black woman in his employ can't be racist, never mind for now.  What I'll point out here is that Sowell clearly feels entitled to have people amazed by the fact that he totally bro'd out with Milton Friedman and chooses to blame political correctness or some other artificial wickedness for why he is not as widely admired as Scottie Pippen Vin Diesel or what have you.  He will not accept that he cannot hammer home standards he considers universal by force of will and cannot make people be impressed by himself.  Not through Republican political victories or any other means. So he slides still further into resentment.  Here and there one comes across flammable bogs in the earth.  A million small angers at the world for not playing by what one imagines the rules to be.


I don't think that some lower-class people are economic conservatives or otherwise conservative because of 'false consciousness.' Some people just choose to believe that some people are better than themselves over accepting that there are no objective means for knowing oneself to be a boon to the world. The notion that serving power is the ultimate good is a comforting blanket, an ancient and spontaneous blanket that need not be invented from on high. The enduring appeal of chivalry tales is nothing more than this. Once one is free there is no blanket no protective arms but only one's own cold embrace forevermore.

There's also the fact that if social hierarchy is opposed, (Whatever that hierarchy may be in time and place) then personal hierarchy must also be scrutinized. Husband over wife, parent over child, the small grace notes of agency control and assurance of mattering that a common person has in daily life. The old chair that isn't actually any better than the couch reserved strictly for grandpa.

Finally the fact that those who hold the levers of power may be very smart but are not Wiser by cosmic orders of magnitude than you or I is obviously frightening.  Those who control nuclear bombs or millions of livelihoods are just creatures with fetishes phobias drug habits etc. The motive for denying this fact is easy to grasp. Think of the wild demands for submission and acquiescence that followed 9/11.  One always sees the same knee-jerk towards kneeling among threatened people anywhere. If the magical thought that power knows how to handle crisis better because it is power is untrue, and of course it is; well....  It is the ultimate impossibility of control that gets people.  The absence of any means to be safe. The lack of any means to know you are doing the right and true exclusive to your own kind, the absence of any inherent reward for doing good, or to save you from having a coronary and blacking out forever while straining to lift a box.

I do not think the ultimate human conflict is between the classes or otherwise external.  The struggle is internal. It is the primal fight between the longing for autonomy on the one hand and  longing to believe that Everything Will Be Alright If I Get With The Program on the other. The solution to this conflict is not to offer an opposing program, as the Marxists do.  The solution is Fuck Every Program.

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