"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

May 7, 2011

Progress

Cannibalizing myself (as commentary on progress, in response to Quin and a kind anonymous respondent):

Time, History and Power (a sketch of an outline)

Conservatism and liberalism* belong to the same mode of thought.

Divergences between the two larger camps, and the various factions - in ideology, practice, membership and politics - serve to mask a rather comprehensive and frankly startling unity of focus.

A unity which binds them all in the continuing project of power.

The differences between a selection of conservatives and a selection of liberals can span the entire known spectrum of policy, belief and adherence. The differences within those selections can vary just as widely, allowing for the competition of factional interests which share a common goal, but varying methods of achieving that end, or a similarity of methods, but a difference in intended outcome.

Ceteris paribus, a common - almost absolute and unified - view of time binds them all, though.

Both conservatives and liberals absolutely require, for the continued functioning of their projects, the rationalization of their goals, and the durability of their programs for maintaining adherence, a past-referent view of the progress of time.

Conservatives generally fix a period of time, somewhere in the recorded past, as a signature frame of reference which serves as a standard of judgment for all contemporary or modern decisions, events and possibilities. Since time appears always to recede, this frame of reference requires updating by subsequent generations of conservative thinkers and believers. The past, fixed now by reverence, becomes a ghost in the machine by which present errors and decisions fall short of the acceptable model, or conform to it. The further from the past that the present travels, the more the conservative must endeavor to correct the imbalance, and the more likely she will remain in adherence to the leaders who best articulate the restorative policies which will bring the present into accord with the past.

Liberals generally fix a period of time, somewhere in the recorded past, as a frame of reference by which they might judge progress made since that range in time. Liberals seek to improve reality by judging the present according to the errors of the past. The apparent distance between present conditions and past conditions provides liberals with the means to evaluate their progress away from the negative reference, in the past. Since the arc of time seems always to recede, backward, the further from the fixed frame of reference, the better - for liberals. The more comprehensive the list of so-called improvements, the more likely the liberal will remain in adherence to the program of whatever party or faction best represents this interest.

Whereas conservatives seek to improve reality by restoring it to a period of past glory, liberals seek to improve reality by redeeming it from a period of past sinfulness.

But both broad tendencies absolutely depend upon the fixity of the narrative of the past, the agreement about the frame of reference, and the valuations of progress/regress from that period of reference.

Since the past seems always to recede, both liberals and conservatives must continuously update their frame of reference. They require, then, a continuity of history.

History - that post-Enlightenment recreation of the past according to a narrative arc which allegedly embodies moral principles in the flow of human decisions, as well as "natural" patterns of determined conduct - binds liberals and conservatives to power.

A reverence for the past - either as a period of grace which one must best mimic, or as a starting point for a series of improvements - serves as the common ground between conservatives and liberals.

That which preserves the model of the past preserves the goals of the party which uses it. History, like any other conceptual map of the phenomena of reality, edits the available data into a set of agreements (or impositions) about how events unfold. Since no history can account for all of the data, available or unknown, no history actually models reality.

History does not reveal truths. It edits memory, sometimes with accuracy, but rather often within a determined perspective. It fixes the past as a confirmation of the present, and often enough, of the form of power which endures across generations and place.

Those who use history do so to improve upon reality, to give it a purpose in the minds of their adherents which has no basis in the material conditions of the world, or the cosmos.

History - that which binds liberals and conservatives in a common view of time and continuity, despite a difference in application - imposes upon its believers the fiction of purpose, of teleology, of an embedded narrative plan in the unfolding of events.

Those who use history, then, attempt to escape material conditions and actual contingency, in favor of a storyline which places them in a position to arbitrate the purpose of human events, decisions and communities.

It justifies power by providing its believers with a frame of reference, to which others must adhere, or in failing to do so violate the purpose of human existence. Those who rule, those who punish, those who believe, those who have some program of amelioration or social construction, absolutely require a common view of the past - of history.

Deviation from belief in the fixed frame of reference (on any number of grounds, from religious to the less predictably nihilist, to the penetratingly apathetic) provides the believers in history with their justification for the continuation of the forms of power.**

This may distinguish them, in part, from more vulgar authoritarians, who employ power to enjoy the fruits of it - but almost without fail, where you find power, you find someone who justifies it by way of history, by way of the attempt to make the present conform to the past, or alternatively, to drive the present as far from the past as possible.

Those who use, create and believe in the historical imposition of a narrative onto human events almost invariably recreate the stable form of power, because the stable form of power (the hierarchy outlined in essays below) provides the best guarantee of continuity, the best control of resources, and the most enduring skill set by which those who rule can instruct others in adherence to power.

This material set of conditions provides the historical believer with the means to impose his history on events. History justifies power by placing it in the center of the scheme of purpose. And power relies on history to rationalize its methods as necessary, natural and determined, as flowing naturally and inexorably from the past.

Where you find power, you have history. Where historians edit the past, power lurks close by.




* - rather broadly descriptive categories, which encompass the whole liberal project starting with the Enlightenment, as well as traditionalist reaction and Catholic/Evangelical maximalism. A social conservative can share the core Enlightenment perspective, with regard to science, the constitution of consent, natural law and rights, and still reject the progressive expansion of rights which characterizes the liberal project, in general. A political liberal can reject the expansion of rights beyond the scope of the nationalist myth, or the State guarantee of the same, but still disagree with conservatives regarding that scope within national borders, or the application of law with regard to civil liberties. Et cetera ad infinitum.

** - a person who does not adhere to history, to the teleological outline of the purpose of events, either from demonstrable error or from a willful rejection, provides a rather unruly subject. Those who don't accept the validity of the storyline tend to deviate from the script. Acts which, even in small numbers, call the whole of the drama into question. Punishment usually follows, and swiftly.

20 comments:

Justin said...

Jack, continuing our discussion, such as it is. (Apologies, this comment got away from me. There is probably a way to say this about 1/20th as long)

Progress is doing one of two things; limiting the range of power's reach, and making power less likely to act against any individual within that reach. Power always claims the right to do anything to an individual, no matter how unlikely it appears to be willing to do so at the moment. Mostly, we define progress largely by how likely we think power is to hurt 'us'. The range of power is largely left unaddressed as a matter of progress. Even though the U.S. government has the ability to kill every human alive and a common street gang can really only threaten a handful of people, most would consider the street gang a more dangerous and crueler system, and more importantly, a sign of regression.

Power itself does not change, it is willing to torture, detain, beat, and kill anyone who poses a threat. The only thing keeping it from doing so is its ability and desire to do so.

As an individual, there are two ways to try not to be killed by power. By limiting its ability or desire to kill you.

If you try to limit powers ability to kill you, and power notices your efforts, it will, by definition, have the accompanying desire to neutralize you, brutally so and with no legal niceties (cue Bin Laden summary execution.) As a result, most of us try to avoid the gorgon's gaze, and try to make power less interested in us, not less capable in destroying us. These accumulated preferences are how we can consider a super power with a massive nuclear arsenal and weapons orbiting the planet a more 'moral' or just system of power than a street gang.

We try to make the gorgon less interested in looking our way by...

Justin said...

1. Bring the interests of power closer to your own by changing the system through persuasion or threat. The danger here is that your challenges or attempts to change the system put you at risk of appearing to be attempting to limit power, rather than attempting to train it upon the right people (not you.) Some set of people are always so marginal, so unpeople, so divergent from the interests of the powerful, that no meaningful reform is available to them and they may be disposed of by whatever means necessary.

If your attempts at reform or change never puts you in a position of suffering any consequences, then you are not really providing any meaningful reforming/challenge, even if it appears you are doing so. Voting, for instance. Writing a letter to Congress, for another. (Its the difference between an Anonymous hacker and a blogger.)

Another way to avoid its gaze is to...

2. Bring your interests into alignment with power by changing your beliefs and values, or if not possible, taking care that your actions reflect the value system of power, whatever your internal objections.

A third course remains, which is:

3. Withdrawal and survival. You do not really care whether power shares your interests, and you do not intend to fake obedience and fealty to it, you just care that power does not notice you, or perceive you as a threat, and leaves you be. You must obey and respect its value system in action, even if you roll your eyes or bitch about it later.

All three options, when successful, appear to make power gentler, less wrathful, less arbitrary to the individual. Its an illusion of perspective though because power will remain gentle and fair until it is threatened. Following from that,

Precedence is meaningless as a signifier that the powerful are getting more powerful or crueler. Setting a precedent is meaningless, power does not need to set precedents. It just to perceive some group or people as a threat. There is no precedence in the sense that some excess of power will result in future excesses. Power always claims for itself the right to do whatever it needs to do to whomever is a threat to its interests and authority. Why aren't we killing Indians today? Because they are no longer a threat, not because we are kinder or gentler. Power would do the same thing, is doing the exact same thing (see Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.), today to whatever group of people pose a problem to its interests.

Power does not need a law to do this, or to have done so before to think it is OK to do so now. If it is not currently doing so, that is because you are not a threat at the moment, or because it calculates that acting cruelty toward you could cost more than its worth. The only way to make this cost seem higher is from one of the first 2 courses above. This is a long way to critique guys like Glenn Greenwald, who believe that power expands its capacity and increases its will to abuse you based on things like precedence.

Justin said...

This is already hella long, but following from the above...

Rules and legality are only meaningful for settling disputes among individuals and governments with equitable shares of power. In cases where there is a power disparity between two conflicting parties, the more powerful party reserves the right to break, rewrite, or interpret the rules in their favor. This is true of disputes between individuals and individuals, individuals and states, and amongst states. (List about 400,000,000 historical examples here.) If the state is not currently ignoring, rewriting or making up rules to deal with you, then that is because you are not perceived as a threat or because it cannot do so without paying some cost, not because some construct of morality or legality prevents it from doing so.

If you disagree with the powerful, but your principles and actions never get you in trouble with power and also do nothing to bring the interests of power closer to your own, then your morality, and what you consider acceptable protest, is really just a measure of your comfort level and ability to rationalize.

Again, apologies for the length, these are probably all very obvious points to you, but new to me.

Ken Bias said...

As always, Jack, you've given me a lot to think about. One basic question I have, though, is this: what about historical study that is solely focused on *challenging* 'mainstream' (establishment) history?

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

Jack I think Christopher Lasch summed it all up in two of his books: Culture of Narcissism, and Progress: The True and Only Heaven.

As long as most Americans are "educated" in American schools and "entertained" and "informed" by American infotainment media, we will have duopolistic monoculture, tribal-style.

I'm interested in forming a new educational setting where students are taught socratically, but the tuition isn't sky-high and limited only to scions of nobility.

Unfortunately most who wish to get into education either want to teach PubSch style (no work, but attendance at the workplace for 8 mos/yr) or want some assurance that they are engaged in shepherding Our Nation's Finest at a St Paul's or Hotchkiss analog.

Something needs to happen to stem the tide of "learning" and "informing" being reduced to 140-character Tweets... if not in shorter and less meaningful bites.

One can't imagine one's self anything else than a worker-bee serf to the liege-lords' whimsical dispensations, unless and until one has been taught to think for one's self rather than being inculcated from early youth as a mere cog in a nobler machine operated by Grandees.

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

Justin,

Mr Greenwald is a product of his background -- as a lawyer he became part of the power network and he can't imagine his own power might be badly used. Show me where he's publicly admitted his many, many analytic and/or understanding errors... and don't ask me to hold my breath while the search is undertaken.

Meanwhile he'll continue looking down the more, better power-wielders road, and continue seeking a way to be paid for his sycophantic appeals to Generic Power Wielded Benevolently.

His arrogance is nearly as boundless as someone like Donny Rumsfeld's, which probably explains his legionnaires of Greenwald-glomming and -protecting stooges.

Justin said...

KFO,
My point is that power is never wielded benevolently, power is what it is, always, and what it always has been. Your perception of its benevolence follows from how closely you are aligned to its interests, whether by making the interests of the powerful come to you or by aligning your interests with theirs. Power's existence on a spectrum of malevolence to benevolence is entirely a point of perspective, in so far as it is being used to beat, detain, kill or injure others to your benefit or detriment. I think this sounds obvious, but what seems less obvious is the ideas of reform, precedence and so on as marks of power getting less cruel or more cruel. It is always cruel, and the same amount of cruel. What changes is how cruel it is toward 'you', however that you define 'you' (i.e. individually, ethnically, etc.)

What I am getting at is that precedence is not a cause of future excessive uses of power, it is a sign that power has noticed and is dealing with a threat. When push comes to shove, the executors of power do not worry if they have done something before as means of establishing if they can do something now because if the choice is between following a rule or protecting power, the rule will get broken every time, all things being equal and up to the point the powerful perceive any costs associated with breaking that rule as being greater than the benefits of protecting or expanding its power.

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

What I am getting at is that precedence is not a cause of future excessive uses of power, it is a sign that power has noticed and is dealing with a threat.

This is true.

There's also the maddening point of power-wielders exercising power just for the sake of that act, to remind themselves of their masculine vitality (I can still father a child, still beat down a pauper, still rob those who are too dumb to see me thieving) and confirm that the yielding of power to the Wielders was and is a good thing.

Identification with the powerful is a strong urge for those who don't experience much personal power in their immediate, personal lives.

It's a lot like how the worker class (blue collar dudes) love throttle-sports like riding motos and ATVs and snowmobiles: it's a chance to feel power at one's whim, the throttle.

This is why cars are central to American experience as well: autonomic power.

A plumber who is yelled-at all week long by the general contractor at the worksite, he needs to feel some autonomy and power outside the workplace where he spends 50 hrs/week. So in the evenings he roots for a sports team, or an Unlimited Fighting Challenge competitor. Or he yells at or hits his GF, wife, kids, dog.

On the weekends he twists a throttle and feels powerful.

Monday at 7:30 AM he returns to serfdom and being a whipping-boy.

Justin said...

In other words, there is really only one precedent that matters and has ever mattered, and always will matter. If you threaten or challenge power, it will neutralize you provided it costs less to do so than to accommodate your perspective. That is it.

If you think summary execution of Bin Laden is worrisome, then do not be like OBL. Similarly, if you think the state beating, robbing you, invading your house, and maybe shooting you is wrong, don't be poor and black. The state would stop doing those things tomorrow if the powerful people influencing it believed that having a poor, politically disenfranchised underclass was not in their interest. And if tomorrow, it believes that expanding this underclass is in its interest, it will do so, no matter what the law says or what it has done in the past and to whom.

Quin said...

Jack, thanks for reintroducing me to your thoughts. I think self-cannibalizing is perfectly legitimate, especially when what you're sharing is so worthwhile. Feel free to do it as often as you like.

Anonymous said...

Well, try to build a bridge without a hierarchy. Try to run a business without management. Someone will probably discover an algorithm for it --- "systems" develop when shit has to get done. The only "leadership less" ventures I know about are Quaker meetings. I would love to see a business that is trying this. Worker cooperatives maybe but I haven't seen them in action.

The idea that power exists almost as an independent entity strikes me as not addressing the origin of power -- human beings. More specifically, the needs that are embedded in the nature of mind. We are social. The idea of the importance of the individual at the expense of the community strikes me AS A MODERN phenomenon. But it is an archetype as well so the narrative has meaning in that it appeals to us. I dunno -I am babbling but I see it this way: Justin and Jack Crow are saying totally different things (not a criticism, just saying that these are two very different ideas); and neither one takes into account the very deep, human aspect of narrative, myth, archetypes, and the evolutionary basis of cognition which, I posit, DOES make stories a part of our hard wiring. Stories are memory are history are narratives are myth ..... And are influential to how we decide what we want for tomorrow which determines how we act today.

Surely people/state/power/system takes advantage of these proclivities and abuses them for goals that are not always beneficial to others (well, to Justin's point, are only beneficial to those who, at that time are part of the power structure). But if not this system, then it is another. And the push-pull will exist in another system.

Anyway, I am on a tablet and can't read what I typed. No arrows! So no edits! So no responsibility!

Jack Crow said...

Justin, Karl -

That's a lot of thought and depth. I hope you don't think the brevity of my reply belittling, but what I'm attempting to communicate (poorly, of course) is that I don't see alterations in human conditions as "advancement."

I don't accept any of the language of progress, because I don't view time as progressive itself.

I think people can objectively value their lives as bettered, but only in comparison to memories and pasts which are themselves unrecoverable.

Anon,

I can imagine a bridge being built without a hierarchy. But, I don't automatically associate "expertise" with "authority," so I'm not limited by a crippling worldview.

Justin said...

Jack, I am in absolute agreement with you and I think the implications of what I am saying are to your point.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my prior comment lacked discernment of my environs. If so, I apologize. It certainly lacked coherence!

I came by this blog via a Balloon Juice link on the Republic post and have a lack of familiarity with you and commenters. But I very much appreciate you, your posters, and the opportunity to comment.

Anywaze, thanks for your blog and putting it out there.

Jack Crow said...

Anonymous,

I can be terrible with tone. That error is entirely my own. I don't intend to sound snotty - but often after I re-read what I've written, I see myself coming off that way.

I didn't intend to imply that you were crippled by any particular worldview. I just - typing only for myself - feel that accepting the inevitability of hierarchy obstructs opportunities for investigating the flexibility of human behavior. I know from sad personal experience how easy it is to boss people, and how quickly one can come to the conclusion that this also equals an efficiency and economy of effort. In abandoning that view of human relations, I felt as if I'd gained back legs I never knew I'd lost.

Hope that clarifies.

Justin,

I thought that was what you were arguing towards, but as usual I try not to let my smug and self-satisfied sense of cleverness get in the way. I tend to fail on that account.

Gabriel said...

Did you catch that? The in group-out group distinction being created by the iconoclast himself? But when Anon back tracks out of timidity, the master reverts to the proper order of things, humbly of course.

Anon, your comment makes more sense than the ramblings on this thread. I keep coming back to this car wreck because Mr. Crow wears his heart on his sleeve, which I love, and because he is right that there is something wrong with the world, and gets at a chunk of what it is quite well at times. He knows he is a wounded man stumbling through the world (he is very open with personal details), even more so than most of us. He professes disgust and periods hopelessness, but still he writes.

Mr. Crow, don't give in to hopelessness. Up until a few months ago, my worldview was, in practice, indistinguishable from that of the neo-cons. I may try to assuage my guilty conscience by saying I felt funny about a lot of things, but in some ways that makes it worse. I'm telling you this because this small community of bloggers has converted me, and I refuse to believe that I am exceptional in this regard. I've got a lot of work to do bringing my family and friends over the path I've recently traveled, but I am confident that it can be done, because I know how they think. Magna est veritas, et prevaelebit.

Jack Crow said...

Gabriel,

My admission of a problem with tone is not new or unique. I've recognized it repeatedly, in comments and posting. I'm an asshole, though without pride.

The only dynamic involved is my stunted willingness to consider my any failures, failings and errors.

I hope it's available to my twenty or so daily readers that ingroup-outgroup has little relevance to the rambling excesses I so vainly offer for display.

I'm sorry you find a "rambling" "wreck" in something I worked for hours to perfect, but there's little I can do to change your mind.

I don't accept the "natural order" of hierarchy. I refuse to make a system out of that rejection. Between those two poles, I limit myself. The comprehensive is too often the fatal, since it demands acquiescence in the face of its claims to totality.

Sure and certain people are the enemies of life and what little liberty we can manage to scrape out of a world made of degradation. Certainty, while often admirable from a distance, is little more than an admission of willful stupidity, but without the good grace to know itself as such.

Gabriel said...

Mr. Crow,
Is it possible to be narcissistic without pride? Many of your commenters do you a profound dis-service by exaggerating your your profundity, which feeds your ego. This is not to say you don't have moments, but this wasn't one of them. Don't stop trying, please. If I thought my comments could discourage you I would button it.

This radical uncertainty you propose is silliness, and you know it. 1: Do no harm. 2: Autonomy is a good thing. 3: Power corrupts. I just had a full day conversation with my sister in which I took her from a position which would have ended with supporting theocracy to a position that I believe you would find little to object to, using these three premises, each defended at the beginning. I suppose one other thing should be stated, but it is more of a fact that requires that the three premises be stated: where there are people a society will exist, and power will not be evenly distributed among its members. This seems to be the thing you object to, and again, it is a mighty foe you have chosen.

Gabriel said...

Did you just censor me? I'll try again.

Is it possible to be narcissistic without pride? Your commenters do you a dis-service when they exaggerate your profundity. Am I crippled by my worldview for thinking this? This is not to say that you don't have your moments, but this wasn't one of them. If I thought my comments could discourage you I would button it.

Your claim of radical uncertainty is silliness, and you know it. 1: Do no harm. 2: Autonomy is good, and should be maximized. 3: Power corrupts, and should be minimized. In a full day conversation with my sister, I brought her from a position that would have ended up endorsing theocracy to a position that few here would object to, starting from these three principles, which presume the following: society will form as long as there are human beings, and power will not be evenly distributed among them. This last seems to be the one you don't like, and yet it is the one that isn't really even a principle. It is a fact. You can object to the politicization of history, say they are lying or doing it wrong, but something happened. There is a story. And it ain't pretty, and that fact is a pretty good guess as to why.

Jack Crow said...

I don't censor. Your reply was caught in Google's spam filter.