Monday, December 28, 2015

Sabbatical orientation & catastrophe

There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s.

-Timothy Snyder


In his recent article for The Guardian, Timothy Snyder challenges the notion that modern Western society - post World War II - has a more well-developed "moral instinct" than the Germans who flocked to the banner of the Fuehrer.  While I agree with several of his theses in this article, I disagree with several more. These points of agreement include his claim above that we are every bit as susceptible to generalized moral failure as the Germans of the 30s and 40s.


Snyder notes that Hitler propagated a kind of 'ecological panic,' the idea that there wasn't room on the lifeboat for us all, the idea that as members of a species (with his own racially organized 'sub-species') that seeks to maximize its niche (an idea still strongly held by Malthusians) in a world that is governed by scarcity.  That scarcity can only be resolved in life-and-death struggle (social Darwinism, another idea that still has credence with far too many); and therefore war and domination, including extermination (direct or indirect), are acute necessities at points in the historical process (which aims toward a secular telos - something akin to 'progress').

Yet we like our living space, we fantasise about destroying governments, we denigrate science, we dream of catastrophe. If we think that we are victims of some planetary conspiracy, we edge towards Hitler.

We begin to see the outlines of Snyder's thesis here. And Snyder is not saying that there are not catastrophes on the horizon. He specifically cites climate change as one; and to that we might add a self-cannibalizing system of global finance, and those aspects of ecological destruction that interact with but which are not identical with climate change (topsoil destruction, oceanic acidification, depletion of aquifers, fishery destruction, species extinction, et al).  What he is saying is that if we are pushed against the wall, or if we feel we are being pushed against it, we will employ exterminist methods with the same public support/acquiescence and the same enthusiasm as those Germans.

Of this I am convinced. Germans didn't support Hitler's imperial dreams because they needed room (expanded niche) for survival.  Their crisis was one that was the unresolved financial fallout of the Great War at the beginning of the century.  This is why blaming it on "Jewish bankers" was an easy sell for the Nazis. What the Germans wanted was not survival, but the consumer lifestyle that they associated most often with what they believed about the United States and saw in a few of their own internal metropoles. The return to a survival economy - a subsistence economy - requires relocalization, not expansion; and to that we will eventually return whether we like it or not.

Hitler’s programme confused biology with desire. Lebensraum unified need with want, murder with convenience. It implied a plan to restore the planet by mass murder and a promise of a better life for German families. . .Once standard of living is confused with living, a rich society can make war upon those who are poorer in the name of survival. Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the American dream.

This is what makes Snyder's thesis alarmingly credible. It is also what makes this thesis important to those of us who think about that subset of the larger society we call church - a point to which I will return after unpacking and elaborating Snyder's points.

One point made at Chasin' Jesus, sometimes with monotonous frequency - which has to be made again - is that 'fascism,' or whatever instantiation we will eventually see of a militarily-repressive, expansionist, scapegoating state, is - before it assumes political power - always a 'middle class' movement led by a charismatic demagogue. But to take control of a potentially repressive state assumes that the institutions and norms of that repression are already more or less in place.

Here is where I think I may disagree with Snyder; because he emphasizes that Germany's worst atrocities were carried out in places where the state had been erased by the destabilizations of war.  What comes to mind now, of course, is what we call 'failed states,' but moreover, those variable forms of state control that allow for programs like 'extraordinary rendition,' where captives can be geographically displaced from certain kinds of legal/political oversight.

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters.

In this, Snyder can be upheld only to a limited extent. Certainly, his example of Iraq after the 2003 invasion fits this model; but what is inescapable in the case of Hitler's Germany is that there was one, very centralized state that was the author of these policies that were carried out in regions where statelessness was exploited for their public invisibility. This is why it may be imprudent to leave a suggestion - intentional or otherwise - that all anti-state biases can be associated with Hitler, or that the state may be our only buffer against these exterminist eventualities.  Mass killing has been the business of states and pre-nation-state political sovereigns throughout history.

And the state is fundamentally organized for war. Moreover, the successful prosecution of expansionary war requires some form of state. There must be a strategic center.

A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority.
An extremely important point, but one that must be served up with some nuance. With that quibble, however, and one about 'markets' that would take a whole nuther blog post, as well as my profound disagreement with his post-Kantian metaphysical assumptions, let's get to another point of partial agreement, which is that the relation between modern political power and science (or, in many cases, pop-science).  That relationship is crucial.

Snyder points most emphatically at climate change as a scientific issue; and his suggestions for the relation between power and science are predominantly those more or less well known proposals for abating the rate at which we will experience what I firmly believe will far worse than most people are willing at this point to admit.  This is in contrast to his descriptions of how certain scientific sensibilities were combined with power in Hitler Germany - not just racial theories (which were widely believe then in the United States, and still enjoy a frightening amount of support), but the conflation of social organization with pop-evolutionary theory (social Darwinism).

Snyder does not seem to recognize the many ways in which pseudoscience and power were aligned, but not as much the ways in which verifiable science is employed by and for power. He mentions the 'green revolution' as a scientific achievement that undermined the Hitlerian view of scarcity, yet fails to recognize all the ways that this self-same 'green revolution' was developed specifically as a political weapon by the imperial core - especially the United States.  Nor does he seem to recognize that a thoroughly monetized economy is an enforced regime of scarcity, which itself reinforces social Darwinism in practice, and therefore constantly reproduces it validity as an idea. He does recognize that the 'green revolution' has reached 'certain limits'; and though he admirably rejects a Malthusian explanation of those limits, he apparently fails to see how this form of agriculture is contributing not only to several of the impending catastrophes cited above, but to global warming itself (industrial agriculture generates one third of all greenhouse gases).

There is more applied science (and fossil hydrocarbon energy) directed into the American military than any other single institution worldwide. Last I checked, that was an organ of the state. And it's 'real' science, so its goodness or badness cannot be determined by its laboratory validity.

Snyder's central concern seems to be "ecological panic" combined with "state destruction," and his solutions are predictably anodyne. His fear seems to be of survivalists falling in with demagogues (as things inevitably do get worse); but I tend to see the greatest danger at much greater proximity - in the United States, no group is more politically volatile - with the latent power to make that volatility a concern - than the white 'middle class.'  My worst political fears reside in Suburbia; and that is the demographic that is the beneficiary of the worst political pandering.  You can't lift a rock without hearing of the plight of 'the middle class.'  They are a huge and essential voting bloc, and therein resides their latent power.

The American 'middle class,' which so many people, from George Will to Bernie Sanders, say they want to restore or defend, is - in reality - an unsustainable sink of energy and resources kept afloat by the brutal exploitation of global peripheries.  That won't be on the web site of any American politician this election season, I can assure you; but it is demonstrably true.  Here is the real danger, because its destabilization is - as an unsustainable social phenomenon - inevitable.  And it's not even part of the conversation (or Snyder's article).

I'm not at all sure "ecological panic" is not a red herring, unless it is simply a synonym for perceived competition.  The problem with this term is that it is easily transferable to many people and groups who (in my view) are rightly concerned about environmental problems that have reached crisis proportions and promise in the near future to become catastrophic (for some, they already are).  And the problem with "state destruction," as an efficient cause of mass killing and-or intense and generalized state repression, is that it can easily be transferred to any and all who are critical of the state - from loony right-wing black helicopter lookouts to Murray Bookchin or pacifist Christian anarchists.

The state is for the recognition, endorsement and protection of rights, which means creating the conditions under which rights can be recognised, endorsed, and protected. 
That's from Snyder's article, and you can see why I would associate him with Kant.


The most astute people on philosophy I know are now and former theology/divinity students, because they are not merely engaged in the philosophical enterprise as part and parcel of their calling, but they have a metaphysical (and therefore critical) standpoint apart from their 'secular' counterparts who find themselves trapped in the morass of what MacIntyre has called 'emotivism' - that is, an infinitely ramifying set of questions about questions that never find ground or resolution, in the fruitless quest to universalize that inevitably sited and specific thing called a person.  It is for this reason, they - more than most people I have known or will know - will see the problem with trying to replace the discredited notion of 'moral instinct' with institutions like the state, which is precisely what Snyder seeks to do. At the same time, my fellow God-botherers and my faith-grounded philosophical friends can acknowledge that Snyder is right to eschew any reliance on this fictional instinct or the national myths that are associated with it - e.g., that America went to war out of some moral instinct contrary to Hitler Germany, or - more to the point - that we are somehow immune to its failure.

These folks are the leaders of churches, themselves fraught with the problems of institutions.  They even have an IRS corporate status in the US.  But in the best of times, they are (or ought to be) governed not by a Kantian constitution, but by the Beatitudes.  And they are unavoidably local; and many have - as noted - the philosophical acumen to grasp the problems inhering in in Snyder's metaphysical standpoint, and the basis upon which to actually ground their moral teachings and decisions in ways that apply to actual people (not some abstract 'individual' who is everywhere and nowhere).  People who know each other and who are bound to each other by more than a niche.

They know that morality requires formation by a community.

So what does this have to do with anything?  What does this say to all of us church folk, not just the leaders, if in fact we are facing a near future (for some) and a present (for others) that is wracked by crisis, looking down the throat of catastrophe, and liable to create situations of acute scarcity (even when there is abundance being hoarded elsewhere)?

One thing that I would point out is that scarcity creates conflict and abundance makes peace easier to achieve and maintain.  By that I certainly don't mean 'abundance' by the standards of core-nation 'middle classes.'  Whatever comes next will involve the REs, repair, re-use, recycle, re-purpose.  It will involve scavenging, gleaning, dumpster-diving, improvisation. It will involve gardens.  There is ultimately only one replacement for industrial agriculture - which is destroying its own material bases as this is written.  That will be very local soil rehabilitation for the purpose of intensive, hand-tended polycultures.  At the very local level, this is an economy of abundance.  One ear of corn produces 800 seeds.  One pound of seed potatoes produces 50 pounds of potatoes.  Abundance.  You won't find that in 'the marketplace.'

Another point I would make is that in those times that approach us with disruptions - some of them predictable - there will be gaps in the system, interstices where the bricolage of ordinary people will be what sustains us in the voids left by political and institutional failure and retrenchment.

When I went to New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina hit and the Federal Government had intentionally neglected the survivors, I visited a local school that had been reopened, with parents and local experts of various sorts, and no authorization by any agency of the government.  People took what was left, and in the interstices of a system in withdrawal, they made something for themselves.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, and embargoed Cuba was left with a devastating shortage of oil, they built a network of emergency food systems that have grown into an urban/sustainable agriculture model that is now world renowned.

The Constantinian temptation is always there; but as we have seen throughout history, this is the devil's trap.

Perhaps we need our young people to study engineering and medicine and law and pastoring; but when they finish their degrees, perhaps they need to also become carpenters, seamster/esses, cooks, plumbers, masons, canners, house-builders, electricians, surveyors, welders, butchers, quilters, cobblers, tinkerers, tanners, brewers, and farmers.

We can, can't we?, cut back on our consumption, learn the difference between desire and need, seek after not more, but enough.  This is, more than anything, a Sabbatical orientation to the world - stopping, breathing, taking in the wonder of Creation.  Enough.  And that is always - like a church - local.

Because that which most directly lashes us to our current system, with its money-dependency to exchange distant inputs that are part of some terrible but invisible imperial tribute, is our built environment.  How do we relocalize that?  Reduce our dependency on money and the power behind it? How do we begin to disentangle ourselves, not only from this dependency on a far-flung system of scarcity and conflict, but from all the ways we know and lament our enforced complicity with injustice?

This may be where the church can make the greatest difference, face to face and hand in hand with our neighbors, in preparation for the failures and absences and dislocations of the approaching future; and to do so without succumbing to the temptation to wield power.

My apologies for errors or lack of clarity.  I just read this article today.  My reactions are not a well-developed argument, but maybe enough to spark a conversation.

peace n hugs

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