Friday, March 20, 2015

Forward! Into the (Pre-Modern) Past [24 April 2014)

"The US is an oligarchy, study concludes"
"Report by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities
suggests that US political system serves special interest
 organisations, instead of voters"
UK The Telegraph headlines, 24 April 2014

             Among a number of professors and pundits in the last quarter or so of the 20th century, a major buzz-term and figurative lens for analysis was "post-modernism" or, in what became a surprisingly widespread jargon term, "po-mo."

            (More sophisticated sorts talked and wrote of "post-Structuralism," but "po-struc" never caught on.)

            I'll throw in two thoughts relevant to the 21st century.

            The first one I'm putting out there because I'm writing the day after Earth Day, a celebration of "the Environment" and of Nature. My impression was and remains that most of the po-mo analysis came out of places and institutions like Paris, New York, and — although this one got complicated — Duke University; Chicago and Madison, WI, and Yale, and eventually even Cornell in Ithaca, New York. And I remember thinking at the time, "These folks should get out more" — i.e., out of the City, out of academic enclaves, out of (small-e) environments that are human-made and see that most of their fellow human beings lived in places and contexts more embedded in, and in touch with, non-human Nature. Most people live in worlds where the power of the human Word and thought and intellectual "social construction of reality" is confronted constantly with realities not of human making and to a great extent beyond human control. Whether some people were out there trying to fit the world to our will with post-modern "social construction" or modern earth-moving equipment, the world for most people remained stubbornly outside of the human mind and only tenuously under human control.

            Urbanization has increased greatly the last four thousand years or so, and even in urban areas we're far from the life of people in ancient cities like Sumer and Akkad — or medieval London; but most people still live in places where a blizzard, hurricane, or tornado, an earthquake or a drought remind us occasionally to dial back our arrogance. Human culture is an itty-bitty little part of capital-N Nature; we perceive Nature through our cultures, but in no significant sense do we construct it.

            (If you're into philosophical, cosmological riffs on Quantum Mechanics, where conscious perception is needed to collapse wave functions and the universe evolved by an "anthropic principle" to produce human beings to perceive the universe so those wave functions collapse so the universe can exist — nah; that wasn't how it happened. The initial perceiving and measurement of the relevant phenomena were actually done by the Konscious Kumquats of Zircon 6; human physicists had nothing to do with it.)

            The second thought is the first one that occurred to me, actually, and which moved me to get my butt and fingers in gear and type out this blog post; it has to do with a po-mo view of social issues. Respectable post-modern analysis of social issues — that "post-Structuralist" variation — sometimes missed or undervalued the fact that while much has changed, a whole hell of a lot of people still live in societies not far removed from feudalism and that recent trends may be back toward social and political relationships that are as much feudal as modern. What follows the modern world is by definition "post-modern," but what we see now in much of the world may be closer to vulgar po-mo of the literary and cinematic and graphic-novel sort: "cyberpunk" dystopias and such, and their more insightful precursors in terms of social analysis such as Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952) and Gladiator-at-Law (1954).

            A step back here, for the context of that thought about the political/social order: I'm listening again to Dan Jones's The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England (rev. edn. 2013). I had gotten past the reign of King John, and The Great Charter of 1215 and was approaching the end of the reign of King Henry III and the reissuings of Magna Carta and The Provisions of Oxford and other notable but repetitive events in English constitutional struggles and their accompanying mini-civil wars. And I noted that the most significant repeated event, one that Jones stressed, was conflict between such generally poor monarchs as King John — who went on to become the "Bad King John" of the Robin Hood stories — and his son Henry III on the one side, and what Jones summarized in a phrase as "the political community."

            That "political community" was mostly the barons and prelates and other assorted noblefolk of Europe — mostly men, but not all — with a few rich commoners in the mix. From those medieval conflicts on — and such battles were old news when King John was a boy — much of English history has been expanding the circle of that "political community"; and that English history has applied elsewhere, emphatically including what became the American Republic.

            The "political community" at the time of Kings John and Henry III wanted their rights and liberties protected and forced Magna Carta upon King John. As some teacher may've tried to explain to you, the Great Charter had some very promising clauses but was definitely protection for the rights and liberties of the ruling elites. "Bad King John" had actually been pretty good trying to protect lower-rank people from their feudal lords; among the rights and liberties those local lords wanted to protect was the "right" to exploit and generally mess over their serfs, "villeins," peasants, servants, and other inferiors, including now and then their better-born vassals and families.

            With rare exceptions like The Peasants' Revolt — the Great Rising in England in 1381 — with rare exceptions, politics was a game for the Political Community, the elite, and everybody else was supposed to know their places and stay there: serve and obey and shut the hell up or risk torture and death and the ruin of one's family.

            Most of the world's people for most of recorded history have lived under either something like feudalism or something worse. "The glory that was Greece" included the slave-based military aristocracy of Sparta and a democratic Athens where the demos (the citizenry) — was incredibly large by most standards but still many fewer than half the population. And Greek and Roman history includes also oligarchies, tyrannies, and dictatorships.

            Since 1776 and all that, there has been around an evolving ideal of a republic based in liberal democracy: where The People rule but all rule is restrained to protect individuals and minority populations. This is good, but even in the United States such ideals are (a) often more praised than lived up to and (b) as a practical matter, very far from universal.

            Such a set of ideals is mostly a modern, Enlightenment sort of thing and not natural to human beings and not all that common. "When Adam dug and Eve spun, who was then a gentleman?" the radical priest John Ball rhetorically asked the protesting peasants in the Great Rising: in the natural state Adam dug and tilled the Earth, while his wife spun cloth. There were no gentlemen and ladies living off the labor of others. Nice, theory, and a great slogan; but John Ball was captured, quickly convicted, and then hanged, drawn, and quartered  Ditto for a lot of others who were executed, if without the "wholesome terror to posterity" of the spectacle of emasculating, drawing, and quartering. Serfdom was on its way out in England, but still had a way to go. "Villeins you were" — one step above a serf — "and villeins you are," young King Richard II is reported to have said to defeated peasants; "In bondage you shall abide, and that not your old bondage, but a worse."

            We are not moving back toward serfdom in the USA, but we are in a period of reaction where the "the political community" is again being redefined, moving back toward the feudal norm with reductions in percentage of our population with much clout, and perhaps also in absolute numbers of political actors.

            We are not moving back to feudalism, but we are experiencing a devolution of power from central government to localities — much of the US Federal government is stalemated or sabotaged — and our local lords often see as their right the exploitation and occasionally just messing over of their "inferiors."

            Democracy is pretty sturdy, and it will survive; and the wheel of political fashion will turn: the elites will over-reach once again, and "the political community" will be expanded again.

            For a while, though, we'll be closer to normal with politics as struggles among small elites played over the heads of the majority, who will increasingly know our place, acquiesce in what trickles down to us from the lords of the manors and lands, and, for the most part, keep silent.

            For a while.

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