Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is lost

This and so much more: to be born into a world saturated to capacity with unmediated meaning, to see a brimming lake of stars at night and never to question the legitimacy of your place beneath it, to inhabit an actual physical place and to know that place as an extension of your own skin, to converse with the mountain in a language without words and to sense each subtle change in the wind’s perpetual caress, to hear the ground yield to your footsteps as an invitation, to feel community as an intimate and inseparable characteristic of each passing thought—the very source of thought itself, to know and embrace the full spectrum of human emotional possibility, to have no words to express self-worth or dignity or freedom because the ideas they represent have no defining opposites, to live each and every breath authentically human, with death a mere returning home, a giving back of what is only borrowed, your hair and muscles and organs and sinews and blood and bones as offerings of appreciation for the Earth’s infinite bounty.

What is lost? From within civilization’s mechanical cage and its violent detachment, from its objectifying non-perspective, its mandatory isolation, its callous commodification, from the standpoint of a system built on brutal and ever-expanding planetary consumption and all-penetrating control, what is lost is nothing at all, or, if something, then nothing worthwhile, the trivial sediment of better-forgotten forms of life.

From a genuine human standpoint, what is lost is nothing less than everything.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Human rewilding

The term rewilding emerged from within the applied science of conservation biology. Rewilding typically involves attempts to reinsert “keystone” species that have dwindled or vanished or were intentionally eliminated from local ecosystems, in an effort to reestablish some semblance of what those ecosystems were like in the past.

Large terrestrial predators are common candidates for rewilding because they frequently serve as keystone species and because they have historically been targets for elimination due to their presumed (but usually minor or nonexistent) threat to humans or livestock. So a wolf pack might be reintroduced into an area in which wolves have been hunted into extinction, for example, with the idea that the reintroduction of the indigenous predator will resonate through the rest of the food chain and restore a level of balance and ecological integrity that has been missing.

A few environmental activists, along with proponents of certain versions of anarchism, most notably green anarchy and anarcho-primitivism, have appropriated the term from conservation biology, and advocate a “rewilding” of the human species. However, to talk about rewilding humans requires a nuanced reworking of the original meaning of the term if it is to be used as something other than a trite bumper sticker.

For the biologists, rewilding typically involves reinserting keystone species into environments in which they are presently absent. Keystone species are those that play a foundational role in the complex web of interactions within a given ecological system such that without their presence the system is altered dramatically or collapses altogether. Despite our self-assigned position at the top of the global food chain, civilized humans are nothing close to being a keystone species. In fact, for the last few millennia the human impact on local environments has been the diametric opposite of a keystone; the introduction of post-Neolithic humans into an ecological system invariably leads to destabilization and, in many cases, complete local ecological collapse. Nor are we in any immediate danger of disappearing from the scene: humans presently inhabit virtually every inhabitable chunk of land on the planet, and in numbers approaching or greatly surpassing the land’s natural carrying capacity.

The one qualification that, to my mind at least, renders the idea of rewilding in its original sense applicable to the human case as something more than bumper sticker propaganda is that most humans—check that, almost all humans—are no longer inhabiting anything close to a natural human habitat—and the vanishingly few humans that are still living like actual humans appear to be on a very rapid and inescapable slide into oblivion.

Thus, taking the conservation biology definition of rewilding and applying it in a direct and literal fashion to the human situation suggests that humans need to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.

What does that mean?

What is a human’s natural habitat? Over the course of the last few million years, humans and their ancestor species have occupied such a wide variety of environments, such a large number of distinct and disparate habitats that the question may be impossible to answer.

Perhaps a better way of approaching the question of “What is a human’s natural habitat?” is to ask its inverse: “What isn’t natural human habitat?” It turns out that this reversing of the question makes it a fairly easy one to answer. Although I strongly suspect that for most folks the answer will not be at all an easy one to hear.

And the project of human rewilding will require more than just learning how to survive outside the cage of civilization (although that will surely be part of it). It will require a relearning—or, more precisely, an unlearning—of everything civilization teaches us about what it means to be human.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The liberating power of refusal

When I was in my very early teens, my family got together with the family of one of my mother’s old friends from her school days for a week long summer visit. They had a girl almost exactly my age, and we had been congenial playmates on numerous visits in the past. Early on the first day of this particular visit, I was rudely introduced to the game of “jinx,” a childish sort of game in which when two people accidently say the same thing at the same time, the person who noticed first would say “jinx” and start counting rapidly out loud until the other person said “stop.” The other person was then obliged to remain completely speechless for a number of minutes equal to the number the person who said “jinx” made it to before the other person said “stop.” I had never played the game before, and she made it to 45 before, out of frustration and confusion, I yelled at her to stop. She then explained the rules and informed me that I would have to remain silent for 45 minutes. I was also informed that speaking before the time was up would automatically add 10 minutes to my sentence. From that point on, she and the other kids were committed to doing what they could to get me to speak.

For perhaps 20 minutes, I sat on the couch, brooding in my forced silence. I became increasingly frustrated and angry that I was not allowed to participate in the ongoing conversation and wracked by a deep sense of injustice. I had not known the rules, after all. It was hardly fair that I had to remain quiet for three quarters of an hour. And then, to make things worse, in a moment of careless inattention I spoke, I started to say something, and was immediately rebuked and informed of the additional 10 minute penalty. I remember feeling trapped, helpless, and angry that I let myself get caught in this oppressive web.

But then I had a flash of insight, a potent revelation, even. It was, after all, just a game. And a silly one at that. No one had removed my vocal cords. There was no gun at my head threatening my life should I speak. It was just a game, and my participation was entirely voluntary. I immediately began speaking entire sentences. In fact, I grabbed a book from the shelf next to the couch and began reading aloud in a loud expressive voice. My prisoner added 10 minutes, and another 10, and then another until I had amassed several hours before she left the room in a huff.

How much of our present circumstances are of this form? We continually act in strict accordance to the rules of a game that we never agreed to play, a game that, should we choose, we could simply stop playing. We could at any moment simply walk away—if it were not for the fact that there are real guns at our heads. . .

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Gratitude is servile

It is easy to confuse gratitude with what might better be called appreciation.

Gratitude assumes someone or something to which we owe our thanks, a benevolent and powerful other that bestows gifts: a king, a divinity.

Appreciation is possible without a gift-giver. Atheists can appreciate. Christians have no choice but to be grateful.

Friday, April 25, 2014

If you can read this, you have been domesticated

Domestication is a technology of control in which organisms are prevented from living according to their evolved expectations and forced into a way of life that suits the needs of another species.

Humans aren’t the only domesticators. There are several species of colonizing insect that practice simple forms of agriculture, for example. Some ants practice animal husbandry by herding aphids and milking them for a sweet liquid excretion called honeydew. And a species of African ant has recently been found that apparently runs rudimentary factory farms in which other insects are raised for meat.

A domestication-based lifestyle has dramatically different repercussions for humans than it does for social insects, however. Ants don’t risk altering their authentic wild nature in the process of cultivating mushrooms or herding aphids. The ants are colonized to begin with. But whenever humans adopt domestication-based ways of life, they invariably end up domesticating each other. They also end up directing technologies of control inwardly, colonizing and taming their own wild and authentic human nature.

Human lifestyles based on domestic domination didn’t exist anywhere on the planet until 9000 years ago, and didn’t become the norm until sometime during the last couple millennia, perhaps. What that means is that each of us is born with the physical, psychological, and social expectations to live as wild and authentically-human beings.

We still carry wild nature within us—every one of us, in every cell and during every breath. The proof of this is all around us.

The proof is in the massive and ever-expanding prison industrial complex. The proof is in the militarized police. The proof is in ubiquitous surveillance and pervasive monitoring. The proof is in the thinly disguised state propaganda called public education. The proof is in the behavioral pharmacology force-fed to school children who have difficulty ignoring the pulse of life that beckons to them from the center of their being. The proof is in the locks on our doors and the security lights around our houses, arrayed like the searchlights of a concentration camp.

Why would any of these be necessary unless we were, at our very core, wild creatures forced to live like captive animals in zoos, wild creatures forced to live in concrete and asphalt enclosures that bear little similarity with our natural habitat, wild creatures who would surely escape the moment we discover a hole in the fence.

If you can read this you have been domesticated, but the tendrils of domestic control just barely penetrate the surface, and their grip is shallow and tenuous and in need of continual reinforcement.

The first moments in the journey toward rewilding, re-embracing your own authentic humanity, involve little more than a quick convulsive shake. Eradicating the global culture of domestication itself, however, may involve a bit more time—and convulsions on a tectonic-scale.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why I hate progressives (part 2)

To be fair, the term progressive as it is applied in any given social or political situation, is somewhat ambiguous. Like its cousins, liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc., it can mean different things to different people in different contexts. Nevertheless, there is a core nexus of beliefs, assumptions, and opinions—an underlying thought-form—that might be applied collectively to folks who adopt the progressive label.

Progressives take civilization as a given, as a natural part of the universe on par with oxygen or gravity. The existence of the system itself is never in question. It is an essential necessity, the ground from which all else is built. The problem is not the existence of a system, it’s that we haven’t got the specific details quite right. With a few minor tweaks (and perhaps a couple major ones) humankind can realize its manifest destiny as supremely civilized beings—or at least we can continue to progress in that direction.

thinkprogress.org, a typical repository of progressive-oriented notions, provides a list of the four pillars of progressivism that can help us flesh out some of the delusional contours of the progressive thought-form.

The first pillar is freedom. Sounds pretty good so far. But because progressives are so virulently pro-civilization, and since the history of civilization is a protracted tale of the violent oppression and eradication of every imaginable form of freedom, it is reasonable to approach this progressive pillar with a bit of skepticism.

The pillar of freedom apparently consists of two parts (sub-pillars? legs?): a freedom from and a freedom to. Let’s take a look at the freedom to first. The freedom to is defined as the “freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity. This includes physical protections against bodily harm as well as adequate income, economic protections, health care and education, and other social provisions…” which translates pretty directly as “we should all be free to be fully functional servomechanisms of the global consumer cluster-fuck machine.” Freedom from refers to the freedom to operate in our personal lives in accordance with our personal beliefs without “undue” interference. The terms undue and interference, however, are left eerily open to interpretation. Presumably progressives believe that the government and/or unnamed powerful others should be allowed to interfere at some level or for some reasons. What this level is and what reasons would qualify aren’t specified, but apparently there are features of our personal lives—things we might do or believe—that are in need of regulation.

The second pillar, opportunity, is focused on political and economic equality. No need for detail here. Basically, everyone should have equal participatory access to the political and economic machine. All people from all demographic categories should be allowed to vie for positions in the service of their corporate masters that are consonant with their abilities, and the spoils should be apportioned according to merit.

The third pillar is responsibility. Apparently we all have responsibility for each other. I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe it is something like the Christian idea of original sin, something that we inherited because of some shit our ancestors did. The description of this pillar reads like that scene in the The Wrath of Khan where a dying Spock says “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Unfortunately Spock’s logic doesn’t work—it implies that needs are commensurate with each other, that they are comparable and somehow quantifiable. It also assumes that we are capable of adopting a psychological orientation toward strangers that is entirely alien from the perspective of our evolutionary heritage as social primates designed for life in small highly-intimate groups.

And then there is this nugget (worth quoting at length if only for the typo):

“This requires pubic [sic!] investments in things like transportation and trade, innovation, a skilled workforce, courts to protect patent rights and contract agreements, public safety and other measures that support the creation of wealth and help to make individual prosperity possible. It also requires progressive taxation, meaning those who have and earn more should pay more to help support the investments in things like schools, transportation, and economic competitiveness necessary to advance the interests of all.

A key component of responsibility involves ecological and social sustainability. This requires on-going stewardship of our land, water, air and natural resources, smart use of energy, and the responsible consumption of goods…”

The deep oxymoronic juxtaposition of those two paragraphs should be glaringly obvious. And this is where the progressive thought-form shows its true delusional genesis. Consumption and wealth creation are simply not compatible with ecological and social sustainability, respectively. Consumption means that what used to be there is not there anymore, and wealth is only created through systematic impoverishment.

The final pillar is cooperation. But what is meant by this is that we all learn to adopt the same progressive goals and that these goals somehow involve improving the lives of everyone. Here we are told that “Progressives believe that if we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will degenerate.” This, however, flies directly in the face of historical fact. “Our” society came into being as a result of those in power blindly pursuing their own needs by actively preventing others from pursuing theirs. Welcome to civilization 101.

Truly, the use of the pillar metaphor is entirely unwarranted. Even rotted bamboo stilts would provide more supportive structure that this.

If left unanalyzed, the core of the progressive thought-form is superficially appealing, and in some ways almost irresistible. Freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and cooperation all make for delicious sound bites. But there is an ugliness lurking just beneath the surface. It’s like a rich and sweet artistically crafted dessert—the frosting on an expensive wedding cake, for example—where the flavors are rat-tested concoctions of artificial chemicals, the sweetness comes from diabetes-inducing concentrations of high-fructose corn syrup, and the richness comes from an overabundance of trans fats and related carcinogens.

Bon appetite.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I hate progressives (part 1)

An article that appeared recently at Common Dreams about the rise of something called “the sharing economy” provides some minor insight into the deep delusions progressives suffer from.

Examples of the sharing economy include Minneapolis’ Car2go car sharing service, where for a membership fee you are given access to “smart cars” that you can drive and then leave at your destination for the next Car2go member who finds herself in the general vicinity and in need of transportation.

As the rich get richer and rarer and the masses gain in mass and poverty, I suspect that this sort of thing will become more popular as a way for corporations to continue to sell their products to people who are no longer able to afford them individually.

This sort of thing has superficial appeal to those of an anarchist persuasion as well. It smacks of the collectivist ideal and provides an illusory sense of cooperative community involvement that is compelling.

But the author takes a trip to the emerald city by invoking the idea of “the commons,” calling the cellphone signal airspace and city streets that are being used by the Car2go members part of the commons, and then claiming that by combining a sharing economy with the commons we are on the verge of “a whole new economic and political paradigm.”

By expanding the notion of the commons and reducing the reliance on private ownership, we are heading toward an economic techno-utopia, a “techonomy” that, “With a few tweaks, an Uber-like system, for instance, could help low-income people get to work” (which is of course where all zeks belong—forced labor being the reason they were created in the first place). Eventually the masses won’t need to own anything themselves, so they will be able to live on far less than the exorbitant wages their corporate masters have to pay them now.

The article ends with: “For when we operate as though we are all in this together—because we are—we will discover a tremendous abundance of goodwill, imagination, and the drive to create the kind of future we want to live in.”

Welcome to Oz.

I’m going to set aside the “who’s we?” for now. I’m also going to forgo discussion about how one would go about ensuring mass cooperation in a “techonomy” without resorting to massive coercive force. Instead I want to focus briefly on the chimeric incoherence of combining industrial mass technology with the idea of the commons. The idea of a technological commons makes no sense outside of utopian (or dystopian) science fiction fantasy.

Lets’ take the example she uses of cellphone airspace. The commons is supposed to represent a resource shared by all, something that everyone has access to or can participate in as they pursue their own goals and needs (the original commons was a pasture that anyone in the village could use for grazing livestock—food, unlike portable Facebook access, being a real need). The sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum allocated to cellphones hardly qualifies as something shared by all. For one thing, you and I would never be allowed to set up our own personal two-way intercity radio system and talk to each other over frequencies in the cellphone range. In addition, cellphone communication requires—duh!—a cellphone, and, typically, monthly payments to a cellular service provider. The industrial infrastructure supporting cellular communication is commercially owned and under the control of immense corporate bureaucracies and buoyed by intricate international trade agreements underwritten by an unimaginably massive and incomprehensibly deadly military. It does not qualify as a commons if there are restrictive entry conditions, if you and I are free to use it as long as the corporate gate-keepers get their ransom.

Maybe the internet would make for a more potent example. The internet has long been referred to as a kind of commons. But the same corporate entry conditions apply here as will. I need a device to access the net. Yes, I could go to the local library and get access on devices there—but someone (you and I) had to purchase those computers through offerings of corporate tribute called tax dollars.

The gatekeepers must have their blood sacrifice one way or another.

In order for cellphone airspace or the internet to be true commons, we would first have to eliminate corporate industry. We would have to eliminate the need for factory wage-slaves. We would have to dissolve the entire commercial consumer fabric of industrial society.

We can have a technological commons, perhaps, but not while the leviathan still breathes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A response to Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker was a mid-20th century cultural anthropologist and prolific writer. It is a potent irony that The Denial of Death was the last book he published before dying of cancer in 1974 at the too-young age of 49.

From a 21st century standpoint, Becker’s perspective on human psychology seems hopelessly backward and out of date, part of the long death rattle of Freudian psychoanalytic mysticism whose echoes still reverberate in the clich├ęd advice offered by “experts” on daytime television talk shows. But Becker was no champion of Freud, and the “denial” he speaks of is something more than a simple defense mechanism.

His main thesis starts with the existential condition of human beings. In trying to make sense of our lives, we confront a fundamental dualism. On the one hand, we are vulnerable animals perpetually at risk from the larger and uncontrollable universe—creatures with bodies susceptible to accidents and disease, bodies that are destined to decay and disappear forever. On the other hand, we are meaning-making beings with an unlimited capacity to create symbolic worlds. We are at once restricted by our bodies and the physical reality of our inevitable death, and at the same time we inhabit an abstract world of cultural meanings in which we can imagine ourselves as part of something transcendent and immortal.

For us to see reality for what it is, including our own complete dependency on external things and our own complete and thoroughgoing powerlessness and ultimate meaninglessness, would be too terrifying. Fortunately, culture provides us with all kinds of ways to disguise the truth. According to Becker, culture is nothing other than a reservoir of meanings for hiding ourselves from the truth—culture is a gigantic ego defense mechanism.

Our lifestyles are “vital lies” that include “a necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.” The vital lies we tell involve a heroic component: we see ourselves as heroes of one sort or another. Society has a hero structure throughout, with ready-made storylines so that people can fit themselves snuggly into the tale of immortality. “In other words, men use the fabrications of culture, in whatever form, as charms with which to transcend natural reality.”

The need to be a hero, to stand out as an individual, is a means to deny the truth of our status as contingent beings, the truth that nothing that we do is really in our control. We need the illusion of being self-caused beings. “As one’s whole life is a style or scenario with which one tries to deny oblivion and to extend oneself beyond death in symbolic ways, one is often untouched by the fact of death because he has been able to surround it by larger meanings.” As a consequence, we live lives of cultivated and ultimately destructive ignorance. “Even if the average man lives in a kind of obliviousness of anxiety, it is because he has erected a massive wall of repressions to hide the problem of life and death…but all through history it is the ‘normal average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.”

But Becker is talking about life within the oppressive grip of civilization. The need for immortality—or the desire to extend life beyond its earthly allotment—seems a natural result of the emptiness of civilized existence and the sense we get that something is missing, the feeling we have that life should be something more than what it is. A hunter-gatherer is surely as aware of the transient nature of her own life as I am—and perhaps even more so, with the regular exposure to death in close proximity and unsheltered by slaughterhouse or mortuary. But the transience itself is absorbed as part of a complete and fulfilling existence. Immortality is built-in from the start, in a sense: as a part of the land, as a part of the ongoing life-and-death coming-and-going that is all around at all times. There is never a chance for the experience of separation—alienation—to find foothold. Mere transient authentic human existence is immortality. The possibility for anything else is incomprehensible.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Anarchism that is not also primitivism is incoherent

In a pamphlet published in 2003 entitled Anarchism vs. Primitivism, the author, Brian Oliver Sheppard, provides a scathing attack of primitivism and the primitivist strain in anarchism.

Sheppard tosses all of the usual anti-primitivism bombs, barely taking a breath between volleys. For example, primitivists are moronic Luddites who want to take us back to a make-believe golden age when humans lived idyllic lives as noble savages with no technology, no agriculture—and no language (!), and the ad hominem classic: primitivists are hypocrites because even as they promote their anti-civilization message, they are gleefully partaking in all of the accoutrements of civilization: electronic communication, vehicular travel, etc.

As near as I can see, his piece is of real value in a couple ways. First, it contains numerous examples of straw-man reasoning, and might be quite useful in an introductory logic class. Second, if we spend the time to take the straw out of his flaming primitivist effigies, the irrationality—and actual incoherence—of non-primitive variations of anarchism becomes sparklingly clear. He makes this simple for us by providing an appendix that includes a convenient list of “primitivist conflations” designed to help the reader with “decoding primitivist babble.” Let’s take a quick primitivist look at the first five.

1. Conflation of civilization and coercive social relations
Here we are told that primitivists consider civilization to be the source of all oppression. Patriarchy, division of labor, warfare, etc., all emerge from civilization. Sheppard dismisses this in a single sentence by pointing out that all of these evils existed before civilization, and so therefore, presumably, the primitivists are all wet.

That’s a bit like saying that radiation exists naturally in the earth, so spent nuclear fuel rods are nothing new. Really? The firebombing of Tokyo was just a tribal skirmish with bigger spears?

But what about those coercive social relations? How do the non-primitivist versions of anarchism deal with them? Social power is the capacity to make other people do what they would not do freely otherwise: aka coercion. By removing the state and placing power in the hands of some abstract collective, coercion somehow vanishes? Civilization cannot function without massive coercive capacity, whether that capacity falls to a state or to a worker’s collective. Someone has to be made to do the actual work, after all. Coal doesn’t mine itself.

2. Conflation of technology and coercive social relations
The true conflation here is to lump all technological processes and objects together into a single basket. Humans in their natural state are technology-dependent creatures. But without an organized division of labor—and some kind of coercive authority to enforce the divisions—you can’t get technologies any more complex than simple crafts.

Here Sheppard tosses a softball for us: “The onus is on primitivists to demonstrate that technology is invariably predicated on coercive or environmentally hostile relations.” Even a cursory glance at the history of technology (beyond simple craft) satisfies the onus with genocide-levels of oppression and several degrees of global warming to spare. To say that actual history does not provide evidence that technology is predicated on “coercive or environmentally hostile relations” is to beg the question.

3. Conflation of “industrialism” and capitalism
I’ve got to confess that this one makes the least amount of sense to me. Apparently, industry—factories and the labor and natural resources necessary to run them—works differently when it’s “owned” by the people who run the machines than it does when it is “owned” by the capitalist (or the corporation, or the state, or an alien super-being from a galaxy far, far away): the mercury coming out of the smokestack becomes less toxic, and black lung disease is less deadly.

4. Conflation of poverty with freedom
The idea of poverty only makes sense within the framework of oppression and inequality. More than just a lack of access to resources, poverty is specifically a lack of resources that other people have access to. Freedom does not necessarily mean that you have unlimited access to resources, but poverty cannot exist without imposing systematic limitations on the degree of access a person is allowed to have (aka, limitations on freedom).

5. Conflation of group decision making and statecraft
State bureaucracies are groups specifically designed for decision making (and the enforcement of compliance with the result!). There is a vertical hierarchical structuring within state bureaucracies that is not supposed to exist within (horizontal? networked? rhizomic?) anarchist collectives. But that in and of itself doesn’t mean that the decision making process would yield better—or even substantially different—results in any given situation. Nor does it change anything with respect to the need for compliance enforcement. It’s here where the incoherence emerges most clearly. From the perspective of the dissenting individual forced to comply, it makes little difference whether the decision came from a worker’s collective or state bureaucracy.

It’s all right if you call yourself an anarchist and still want to keep your toys, I suppose. But if you are going to accuse me of incoherent babbling, you really need to be a bit more articulate yourself.