November 05, 2020

Of Size and Scale


While we're waiting for Schmiden to win and Trumpi's absurd lawsuits to crash and burn, I thought I might provide a bit of intellectual diversion. As follows:

Beyond right and wrong there is a field; I'll meet you there. --Yalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

A short while ago, someone sent a message to this blog, in which he voiced his concern that communism was threatening to take over America and the West. For me, it was like listening to Rip Van Winkle, who had fallen asleep for 30+ years and woke up thinking that Ronald Reagan was president. But it got me reflecting on the danger--not of communism or capitalism per se--but of size. It could be that the real problem with the Russian empire, or the American one, was the word "empire." In other words, it was not about ideology as much as the scale of the enterprise. After all, if we are talking about modern industrial societies, the most successful ones on the planet would appear to be the Scandanavian countries, which keep both socialism and capitalism in check by means of a mixed economy.

Another way of saying this was posed many years ago by the American anthropologist Richard Schweder, who suggested that most ideologies were functional or viable within limits. There is, however (he went on to say), a perverse tendency to always go overboard; to go to extremes. One thinks, for example, of the political correctness movement, which has become intolerant of any dissenting opinions to the point that it has acquired some of the characteristics of the fascist groups it opposes. Or as I wrote in the wake of 8 November 2016 (see Essay #15 of Are We There Yet?), how its extremism finally provoked the backlash that put Donald Trump into office.

As far as socialism goes, it does, as noted above, seem to work in controlled contexts, such as the Scandanavian countries. Modified socialism, as it were. But apply it on a vast scale, as in the case of the former Soviet Union, and you wind up with totalitarianism--Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. (Of course, Russia has been autocratic for something like a thousand years, long before the Bolshevik revolution; but that's a whole other discussion.) As for capitalism, a similar argument was made by Richard Powers in his brilliant novel Gain, which is a condemnation of the scope of hustling, not of hustling per se (we all have to make a living). In the novel, in the late eighteenth century, two brothers open a soap-and-candle shop on the Boston docks. It proves to be very successful, so much so that 200 years later it has evolved into a huge pharmaceutical conglomerate, poisoning rivers and giving the folks who live near them cancer. The point is obvious.

It's also about religion, in the broad sense of the term. Whether Left or Right, it is easy for people to get caught up in abstractions, and lay waste to everything around them as a result. We see this clearly in that remarkable TV series, The Americans, in which two Soviet agents living in the United States (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) so blindly follow orders from Moscow that they murder one "enemy" after another (most of them innocent) for the sake of The Cause, until at the end, with Gorbachev emerging as a challenge to the Kremlin's old guard, they have to confront the fact that their lives have been meaningless, a gigantic illusion. On the capitalist side, we have millions slavishly pursuing the supposedly endless expansion of the American Dream, which, after a certain point, also issues out in meaninglessness. (I recall David Brooks, a few years back, writing about how, despite having a $4-million apartment in Manhattan and celebrity status as a New York Times columnist, he was depressed. Gee, what a surprise!)

The sad fact is that the number of political writers who realized the crucial importance of not getting seduced by an ideology--not going "whole hog," as it were--is pitifully small: Koestler, Camus, Orwell, Eric Hoffer (The True Believer), and the American monk Thomas Merton, among others. Koestler's word for this fanaticism or fundamentalism was "devotion," a word with obvious religious overtones; and toward the end of his life he suggested that the only hope for the human race was that scientists develop a pill to combat it. Which does raise the question of the psychological dimensions of the phenomenon. (More on this in a moment)

The Scandanavian example does point to an important post-imperial possibility (although China has certainly failed to get the message): decentralization. Alternative politics can emerge with the breakup of empires, although the post-Soviet collapse led to a great deal of regional brutality. America, too, will (I believe) have its own secessionist breakup, probably within two or three decades, or even less; yet it is not likely that these new independent states will be able to shed the narcissism and competitive individualism that seems to be woven into the American DNA. E.F. Schumacher notwithstanding, small is not in and of itself necessarily beautiful.

I go beyond the issue of decentralization in the second story of my recent short story collection, The Heart of the Matter, which is also called by the same name. Whom might we look to for sensible political alternatives? In that story, I suggest John Ruskin, William Morris, Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, and Ernest Callenbach as guides to a reasonable future, although, as we might expect, they have to date been dismissed as "quaint" or utopian. All of these writers were in favor of decentralization, but they saw something equally important, in addition: the necessity of inner peace, of balance, of a human consciousnss that was not endlessly self-aggrandizing. "The spirit of our days," wrote William Morris, "has to be delight in the life of the world." Hard to disagree.

This brings us to the psychological aspect of the problem. There is, in fact, a sixth writer we need to consider, namly the much-maligned Italian thinker, Niccolò Machiavelli. As I argue in Genio: The Sources of Italian Genius, Machiavelli has been badly misunderstood. Beneath the level of political opportunism--which he certainly did advocate for princes--there is a deeper level that transcends Left and Right, and that is the opposition of ego vs. decency. I do believe that if we are to have any future at all, as a human race, it is going to have to be green, sustainable, and decentralized, containing elements of both capitalism and socialism, and free of the ideology of "growth." But these are necessary conditions, not sufficient ones. For enlisted in the service of ego, these things can also turn into "religions." (If you've ever met a Green fundamentalist, you know what I'm talking about.) Machiavelli understood that in the real world--the world of rulers and their subjects--it was ego that prevailed; but what kind of world was that, finally? The man was no buddhist, but he did see that in order to evolve toward decency, the ego had to become aware of what it was doing, and why; to acquire self-transparency, in a word. As James Joyce famously put it, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Waking up: this is the long road ahead.

(c)Morris Berman, 2020