Friday, August 26, 2011

Anti-primitivist memes that never die

Here is yet another one of those “anarcho-primitivism is dumb" screeds.  Absolutely no new ideas here—the same pseudo-arguments about how there are too many of us now to readopt hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and besides, life in the Pleistocene really sucked anyhow.

This claim in particular is becoming cliché:

“Estimates of how many people could live on the Earth as hunter-gatherers based on the amount of food that would be available to them suggest a carrying capacity of around 100 million [link removed]. How the global population would be reduced to this figure has not been adequately explained by any anarcho-primitivist, but I’m not sure that would be possible without starvation and suffering on an unheard of scale.”

OK.  What if we spent a couple generations of sharply negative population growth?  No, I don’t know how, practically speaking, it would be possible to convince 7 billion people to severely curtail their reproductive activities.  But, then, a few generations ago, I would not have known how, practically speaking, it would be possible to get 7 billion people to relinquish what little remained of their personal freedom and acquiesce to the permanent defacement of the natural world for the benefit of multinational corporations.  Every five-year-old eventually learns that just because you personally can’t think of an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  

And then, of course, the “massive die-off” cliché assumes that there would be less of a massive die-off, less starvation and suffering, if civilization continues.  If we end civilization today, almost seven billion people will die.  If civilization is allowed to continue for another three or four generations, that number rises to over 10 billion.  Our inaction today sentences an additional three billion people to starvation and suffering—and that doesn’t include the billions who will suffer and starve anyway, as a function of the grossly unequal access to resources that is a defining feature of all civilization. 

And while we are on the topic of gross inequality, the author of this screed—who, to his credit, appears to have strong anarchist sympathies—claims that capitalism is the source of this inequality, and that our technology will save us once we direct it toward human ends:

“Only once scientific research and industry have been brought under the control of the masses can the technologies that we use be adjusted to meet human values.”

Statements like these demonstrate a complete ignorance both of what science is and how it works, and of the basic nature of the industrial process.  Both science and industry require division of labor; they involve specialization and expertise: the unequal partitioning, distribution, and isolation of knowledge—which is entirely at odds with even the most superficial kinds of “mass control.”    

But where this guy really takes the boat of the edge of the map for me is when he lists all of the disease vectors that hunter-gatherers, both past and present, have to contend with, diseases that the miracles of modern medical technology have either eradicated completely, or relegated to statistical rarities.  The meme being tapped here is that civilization has made life progressively better.  I have devoted several previous posts to dispelling this myth in its various forms.  It is probably sufficient at this point simply to suggest a cost-benefit analysis of modern medical technology that includes the prevalence of iatrogenic illness and other side-effects, as well as externalities such as the health-destroying features of the global industrial machine itself—the presence of which serves as a precondition for the very existence of modern medical technology. 

Technology is a zero sum game.  This is an empirical fact.  But the costs are sometimes hard to see, overshadowed by the proximal benefits because we focus narrowly on the specific problem(s) that a technological innovation is designed to address, and ignore the preconditions for that technology’s existence and the peripheral and long-term consequences.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A New Odyssey

The modern myth of civilization is an epic tale of progress.  It is a story of the inevitability and ultimate beneficence of technology.  It is a legend in which civilization is our manifest destiny as a species, the shining jewel at the pinnacle of our evolutionary trajectory.   It is also patently false, a delusion. 

Unfortunately, delusions are notoriously difficult to dispel.  They are impervious to logic and conflicting evidence.  By definition, a delusion is a state of belief that is resistant to the intrusions of reality.  Those who operate under the influence of a delusion are adept at dismissing inconsistencies among their beliefs and reality, and easily navigate through mountains of competing evidence with the aid of a variety of very effective defense mechanisms.

But the real problem with the myth of modern civilization is not that it is false, nor that it is unresponsive to countervailing facts.  It’s that the conceptual frame it provides leads us to act on the world in ways that are counter to our best interests—and to the best interests of every other life-form on the planet!  A patently false system of belief that served as the grounding of a truly human way of life would not be a problem, despite its lack of veracity.  The modern urban legend is a problem, but not because it is false.  The modern myth is a problem because it provides validation for the ravenous consumption of the planet in much the same way that belief in divine kingship provided a source of justification for the destructive and oppressive activities of the first civilizations in Sumer and ancient Egypt.

The causal arrow between the emergence of civilization and the development of a mythic rationale for its existence points in two directions.  Thus the problems of modern civilization are not going to be solved by simply weaving another kind of story.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting exercise to consider what kinds of stories we might create as we reframe our situation in more human ways.  What kind of mythic legend might we tell about our eventual rejection of civilization in favor of more authentic modes of living?     

Perhaps we can look to the original legends of civilization, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Homeric tales, as a template.  The legend of Odysseus, if I can be granted a wee bit of allegorical license, provides an interesting pattern for a new kind of epic legend: a story of how the human species, after uncountable years abroad, eventually regains its place in the world.   Odysseus’ leaving home and going to war represents our species’ transition from its evolutionary basis in foraging band society to lifestyles based on domestication and conquest, and all of the misery and strife that transition caused.  Now, lost and under the beguiling spell of modern civilization, we find ourselves shipwrecked on an island with a powerful nymph, where life is a superficial paradise and yet we suffer chronic discontent.   For Odysseus, Calypso’s island was a very empty place, and, of course, he was being held against his will.  Despite its virtually unlimited array of momentary pleasures, modern techno-culture is hollow and unfulfilling; the island of civilization is not our home, and we are, like Odysseus, held hostage and forced to attend to desires that are not truly our own.  And, like Odysseus’ voyage home, our journey back to a life that is consistent with our human nature will be fraught with obstacles.  There are storms on the horizon.  And even if we manage to find our home shores again, ultimate success is not guaranteed.  Things have changed since we left all those years ago.  Our fortune has been squandered and our castle is crowded with men of bad intent.  But we are not alone.  We have our tirelessly devoted wife—the all-providing natural world which has never abandoned us.  And we have our son—our genetic connection to the past—who has been abused, but is strong and itching for a fight.  And, despite overwhelming odds, we yet possess the strength to string the bow and the steadiness to send the arrow on its narrow path. 
But first we need to free ourselves from our seductress.  We need to leave the island.  Odysseus was able to break free only by enlisting the sympathy of his patron goddess, Athena.  Athena no longer has ears for our kind.  She is a goddess of war, and as such her sympathies are with the power complex of the machine.   

Who, or what, is our patron goddess?    

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Resistance (Part 1)

Resistance is essential in a machine made of metal.  Without contact between resistant surfaces, without pushback and friction, movement of the gears would be impossible.  But resistance has to be tightly controlled and kept within a specified range of tolerances.  The machine of civilization is likewise dependent on the presence of a certain range of controlled resistance among its component parts.   But unchecked resistance is not “tolerated.”  Open refusal to respect the machine’s operation, either by resisting in ways that threaten the structural integrity of a one of the machine’s components or by simply refusing to appropriately engage the system’s powertrain, is a potential death sentence. 

Note that “refusing to respect the machine’s operation,” is not the same as “breaking the law.”  Crime is part of the machine’s design, and criminals serve a variety of vital functions.  A thief, for example, by his or her very act of theft, demonstrates open respect for the idea of private property.  The risk of theft also provides justification for police “protection,” surveillance, and other restrictions on personal movement and privacy that enhance the machine’s control.  Also, criminals make excellent diversionary scapegoats, redirecting attention and preventing scrutiny of the system itself: society’s problems are not part of the nature of the system; rather they reflect the deviant activity of a criminal class of people.  Drug dealers, arsonists, vandals, shoplifters, child molesters, fraudulent realtors, and axe murderers are as much part of the machine as are lawyers, ballet teachers, and air traffic controllers. 

But by stepping outside of the machine, by refusing to acknowledge the machine’s legitimacy, by resisting engagement in the machine’s operation, you become like the rest of the natural world: external material to be either exploited and consumed or eliminated.  If you refuse participation, if you offer nothing of value, then, from the machine’s perspective, elimination is the only option.

It rarely comes to that, however, because true resistance seldom occurs.  And when it does, the media machine is careful to recast it in terms of psychopathology or screen it entirely from public awareness.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Arrested development

Rousseau surely overestimated when he declared that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”  We are tethered to the machine even in the womb, where the winnowing of future possibility begins with hormone-disrupting pesticides, heavy metals, an alphabet soup of industrial toxins, and the chemical shock of neonatal vitamins.  And in the first hours and months and years, the critical dance of maternal attachment, the back-and-forth, give-and-take of early identity formation becomes a stuttering, frame-jumping mélange, shrouded in sensory deprivation and interleaved with commercial advertising.  As we mature, complete maturation never happens, and our cyclically-expanding epigenetic emergence becomes a linear trajectory bent to the ends of an invisible mechanical leviathan that is even now chewing the ground from under our feet. 

Our earliest and most durable chains are those of arrested development.  Psychological modules designed to assemble in response to social and material conditions distinctly different than those we experience assemble themselves nonetheless.  But they are unfinished and distorted.  And their integration with other modules is incomplete, resulting in a permanent and systemic deficiency requiring external fortification.  Civilization both creates and services our insecurities, becoming first an oxygen tent, and then an iron lung.  Our immaturity is the source of a baseline dependency that provides the machine with sturdy psychological carabiners to latch onto.  

And the carabiners quickly become shackles.