What Have You Got?
Reflections on Man’s Hubris
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”
The question that will hang over the last campfire of Earth will be, “what have we done?” And, perhaps even, “why?”
One of the scraggly, misshapen apes might, somehow, have enough capacity left to echo the conclusion arrived at by Ernst Mayr. Something catastrophic happened the moment a mind capable of asking such things emerged. Rather than being our most laudable attribute, intelligence has shown itself to be a lethal mutation.
Madách understood that tragedy is intractable. It’s what makes us Man. His major work begins with Adam and Eve taking the gift of intelligence: this, the lovers are taught by brutal experience, is their curse.
Oh take away this dream which drives me mad.
It is terrible to stand alone among
A hundred warring elements and feel
That sense of sharp and utter desolation!
O why did I dismiss that providence
I felt instinctively but could not prize.
My intellect now yearns in vain for it.
As a matter of course, humans conjure up the most extraordinary ideas. Wonders of the mind, without which our souls would be denied the pleasures of art. The world would also be free of death camps, atomic bombs, biological weapons, oil rigs, bulldozers, and — perhaps most devastating of all — the hoe and whip. Some of these inventions will end the immortality we pretended Michelangelo, Goya, Pärt, Dostoevsky, Bellow, Kubrick and Davis had achieved. Along with much else, genius will be the death of itself.
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In traditional societies ideas showed their usefulness. The pressures of a hunter-gatherer existence were diminished with the development of tools. The chaos of forest eventually fell to the “order” of pasture and crops (anyone who has attempted farming knows it isn’t as orderly as romantic urbanites like to believe). But with every success Idea brought into being, the wielders moved closer to enslavement; captured by their own thoughts. People began to see the world less as it is, and more as it ought to be. Whole systems of delusion were constructed, wherein groups of mammals believed they were something else entirely. Something more, greater, with all else relegated to means. They may have believed themselves lords — the elect, the pinnacle of evolution, but as Ought never became Is, their existence of was one of perpetual discontent.
Exempting a few eccentrics, everyone became an idealist. Imagining that the Universe would adjust itself to the increasingly fantastical plans of Man. The problem with having your mind hitched to a star, Schopenhauer warned vainly, is you’re unlikely to notice the cliff edge you’re marching toward.
Many imagined a supreme Being, who, they insisted, created them in his perfect image. If such an entity is responsible for what is, David Hume was certainly nearer the mark.
This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance. It is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors. It is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated
deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.
These systems of delusion include everything from parochialism to speciesism. The particulars, though general, go under the names like Communism, Christianity, Islam, Fascism, Empire and Nationalism. These are the words that can make “we” sound so chilling. Perhaps most pertinent for readers of this, however, is Liberalism. That ideology that can’t admit that it is one, and is so tolerant and unprejudiced, that simply everyone has to adopt its precepts. “Liberal Democratic Capitalism” has been the bitter pill the governments of NATO and the IMF have rammed down the throat of that so-called developing world (a formulation adored by those afflicted with teleology). Liberal institutions, that is, until warlordism works better (as Western powers decided throughout Central America and Asia); democracy, unless voters make a disagreeable choice (Gaza, Éire, when the She-Clinton was trounced); and free-market capitalism except when multi-national corporations are asking for state subsidy (everywhere). Long before the rot set in, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote,
[Liberalism] is the ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs: ‘liberalism’ is the ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of capitalist society… Liberal values, tarnished by the spurious tributes of the rich world’s media, today make the rich world yawn and the poor world sick.
I might add: the liberal “public intellectual” is the type who learned from the Enlightenment that nothing is sacred, except their childish fables about the Enlightenment.
In the developing world Liberalism has meant installed dictators, sweat shops, child miners, and the growing encroachment of a plastic sea. As for that economic core, these privileged workers now have less time off than the serfs of the Middle Ages. (That’s those workers who have not seen their sectors lost to unpeople abroad or machine.)
At the end of the Industrial Revolution, there was a wide-spread belief that technology would release people from degradation and toil. It was untenable. To the economic systems built about themselves, such considerations are unimportant, “externalities”. Instead, the structure forces these Frankensteins to pursue production and economic growth with a pathological intensity. Synonyms for rape and plunder, that are so opposed to the consolations of the soul so as to break the dialectic.
But hold in there, figures like Pangloss Pinker tell you. You may be dropping of exhaustion, and require brain-altering chemicals to face the day, but Providence is just over the crest of the hill. Only now utopian missionaries have taken a step back, and would have their followers believe Progress is their salvation.
It is no accident that the belief in Progress and a concern for ‘posterity’ waxed in proportion as the belief in Providence and a concern for a future life waned. The former belief — illusion, if you prefer — is man’s compensation for the loss of the latter.
They like to believe themselves hard-nosed realists, but these progressives are just as much the bastard-spawn of Christianity and the radical Enlightenment as Trotsky and Lenin. Adopting the universalism and evangelicalism of both traditions, as well as the faith that the Universe can be understood in its entirety by fumbling, hairless apes. Though the belief that they possess a “conscious mastery of their fate”, is almost entirely the fault of the latter movement.
Reason is the fetish of the progressive. They have not yet learned that reason’s role is “not to make us wise, but to reveal our ignorance” (Kierkegaard). As well as the lesson of Hume, the most important of all Enlightenment thinkers: reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. And this from the man who offered the most thorough demolition of the Is-Ought conflation.
The brilliant William Hazlitt saw this type for what they were. From his Soho bedsit, he also foresaw how liberalism would come to serve capital. (Chomsky makes a convincing case that this wasn’t always so.)
Man was indeed screwed up, by mood and figure, into a logical machine, that was to forward the public good with the utmost punctuality and effect, and it might go very well on smooth ground and under favourable circumstances; but would it work up-hill or against the grain? It was to be feared that the proud Temple of Reason, which at a distance and in stately supposition shone like the palaces of the New Jerusalem, might (when placed on actual ground) be broken up into the sordid styes of sensuality, and the petty huckster’s shops of self-interest! Every man (it was proposed — “so ran the tenour of the bond”) was to be a Regulus, a Codrus, a Cato, or a Brutus — every woman a Mother of the Gracchi.
In a curious way, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins and the other latter-day “Enlighteners” show the truth of Hume’s maxim. In each of these cases, rationality is always subservient to an emotional investment in Western Civilization. This is the patriotism of the middle classes, yet it is more dishonest, and manages to be even less coherent.
Certainly [Neoconservative intellectuals don’t] have much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.
Pinker has taken up the Cold Warrior reading of the Cold War, and the king of pseuds, Harris, has taken time out from thought-policing to call the United States a “well intentioned giant”. Those farmers in Indochina who are still unearthing US ordinance, and losing a face in the process, probably have a different take. As might the European victims of GLADIO terrorism, and the handful who made it out of El Mozote and Nisour Square (and here I’m limiting myself to recent decades).
Whenever confronted with events like these, Empire’s defenders will spew something along the lines of, “stop it with your false equivalency! We may engage in barbarism every so often, but have you forgotten our ever-shining ideals? Such excesses, though unfortunate, are slight blips on the road towards History’s terminus”. (History will end, and possibly quite soon, but not in the way they hope.)
It used to be the case with the Neoconservatives Said targeted, that the monolithic West could be excused because it was a religious bulwark against the overly rational, atheistic, cold-hearted Reds. Now, with progressives, the West must be bolstered because it is rational, secular, and has overcome that squalling stage of human development, i.e. religious. The results are the often the same, and always dire.
They grabbed what they could get and for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter nose than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
If recent events have shown anything, it’s how it’s now “the West’s” turn to exploit the Enlightenment.
Some years ago, after listening to David Aaronovitch champion the Establishment he once wished to overthrow (allegedly), I thought his position was best summarised as: “Oh, did we blow up your school, making tiny limbs pepper the sky? Well, rest assured, we like Galileo.”
Marxists are as much to blame for protracting the ruinous teleology narrative. They may claim to be anti-capitalist but, going back to the man himself, many of this tendency have heaped no end of praise upon the energy, dynamism and productive capabilities of Capitalism (showing Carl Schmitt to be right about at least one thing). The global version of which is the most suicidal economic system yet achieved. Reliant, as they are, on Hegel’s strange formulations, they see an internal logic to History; one they are on the “right side of”. This has Marxists defending the worst excesses of the prevailing institutions, because, in the grand scheme of things, Capitalism’s success brings us closer to the next step: red bureaucracy and/or world socialism. Onward comrades, and upwards!
But those who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway. One need not be an automatic positivist about this. But it does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.
It must be noted that figures like E.P. Thompson, (the later) Raymond Williams and William Morris, although Marxish, didn’t possess a visceral hatred— and often times fear — of the past. A disdain characteristic of the “party of the future”, and one that has made it so susceptible to farce.
If these idealists masquerading as materialists did in fact want to enact positive change, they would start by unburdening themselves of optimism. Perhaps then they will realise just how pervasive humanity’s problems are, and just how threatening to those 19th century certainties the solutions, if any, will prove.
To think that some force of nature, social or otherwise, is underpinning and ensuring what you consider to be moral victories is self-defeating, personally and politically.
Believers in progress [which] like to think of themselves as the party of hope, actually have little need of hope, since they have history on their side. But their lack of it incapacitates them for intelligent action. Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.
The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch
Truthfully, we’re not at the cutting edge of Progress, so much as some unfortunates caught at the fag-end of an evolutionary aside. (You can add your own witticism about smoke here.) Even if it were true that we stand upon the shoulders of giants, few would care to notice the rope around each titan’s neck, and the chair beneath their feet.
If you disagree, but are still here, you’re probably thinking, “but aren’t the vast majority of people more moral now than ever before? Peter Singer’s moral circle has been expanding, has it not?”
There have been improvements in the conduct of some states, yes. But we mustn’t think these developments anything but fugitive, or that evil is so obvious and immutable. If, for example, we allow ourselves to inspect that City on the Hill, we discover something of a veloutier shrub. Although pleasant from afar, the stench is truly odious up close.
In the United States, more black men are imprisoned in 2018 than were enslaved in 1850 — and that “made in U.S.A.” label will often mean a prisoner was forced to make the product. (Globally, there’s more people in enforced bondage than at any other time.) Seymour Hersh recently described the prison infrastructure a “system of beastility”, where rehabilitation no longer matters; a travesty that has gone unreported by the mainstream press.
If you find the horrors of the incarceration/slave labour complex difficult to process, Orestes Brownson’s words from 1840 will certainly be too much.
Where go the proceeds of [the average worker’s] labors? The man who employs them, and for whom they are toiling as so many slaves, is one of our city nabobs, reveling in luxury; or he is a member of our legislature, enacting laws to put money in his own pocket; or he is a member of Congress, contending for a high tariff to tax the poor for the benefit of the rich; or in these times he is shedding crocodile tears over the deplorable condition of the poor laborer, while he docks his wages 25 percent. . . . And this man too would fain pass for a Christian and a republican. He shouts for liberty, stickles for equality, and is horrified at a Southern planter who keeps slaves.
One thing is certain: that, of the amount actually produced by the operative, he retains a less proportion than it costs the master to feed, clothe, and lodge his slave. Wages is a cunning device of the devil, for the benefit of tender consciences who would retain all the advantages of the slave system without the expense, trouble, and odium of being slaveholders.
Although the Central Intelligence Agency has always been in the business of breaking bodies, there’s now no pretence. For the world’s leader, its sole superpower, torture is fine. Of course, in the politically-correct lingo, drowning and anal rape are simply exercises in “enhanced interrogation”. It’s debasements of the English language like this — refinements of Newspeak — that lift a comforting veil over the machinery of Empire. Expect it to get worse as agents of the Free do their best to fend off Gore Vidal’s (perhaps optimistic) prediction: Americans are bound to become the Yellow Man’s Burden.
It would be delusional to think that the category of “unpeople” (a term Brockleson’s reincarnation, and Ben Shapiro, an explicit supporter of ethnic-cleansing, have attempted to adopt for themselves) has been, or ever will be, overcome. The animalising of inconvenient populations, as John Gray has written, is as natural to humans as religion, language and moralising. The ultimate consequence of dehumanisation — genocide — has so bloodied Man’s trail, that we must admit how very human a phenomenon it is. Intelligence granted the worst passions the most awful tools, reason provided the excuses — always predicated on Ought.
But why use a word like “animalising”? It is based on hierarchical conception, where exists a stratum of species to which elevated humans are sometimes demoted. This category holds 99.999% of species. Torture, confinement, mutilation, experimentation, and death by sadism is their due. And many, many billions of them are, in a designation more awful than words allow, “bred for slaughter”.
Mankind, your Satans, are not very happy either.
King of Beasts, Robinson Jeffers
Singer’s pin-up Bentham, made one vital contribution to the discussion on ethics. When considering the treatment of fellow creatures, their capacity to suffer is what matters, not their intellectual capabilities. There has never been so much suffering as there is in this moment, until the next.
Walter Benjamin wrote, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. If we are to accept the common place categories, we have now reached a point where civilisation is stagnant or declining, while barbarism continues its exponential growth with every human brought into existence. Civilisation, of which factory farming is so central, makes everyone complicit.
But if that doesn’t move you, perhaps self interest will.
We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century.
The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine
From the Scientific American,
In 2014 pharmaceutical companies sold nearly 21 million pounds of medically important antibiotics for use in food animals, more than three times the amount sold for use in people. Stripped of the power of protective drugs, today’s pedestrian health nuisances — ear infections, cuts, bronchitis — will become tomorrow’s potential death sentences.
When, though, was the last time self-preservation could be described as a cardinal human value? Confronted with rising global temperatures today, political leaders either deny or pay lip service. Faced with an environmental disaster of their own making, in the 19th century the Easter Islanders went ahead and chopped down the last tree. All that has changed is the dresscode.
Anthropogenic climate change is one existential threat. The other is the stockpiles of nuclear weapons which can destroy life on Earth several times over. Petty squabbling within the least responsible of all classes — the governing class — and between those of nations has meant that a solution to this crisis is just as hopeless as the first. How bad must things be, that the cognitive revolutionary Noam Chomsky would embrace one of Freud’s most controversial propositions: the death drive?
The National Person is superhuman in size and energy but completely sub-human in morality. Ordinarily decent behaviour cannot be expected of the National Person, who is thought of as incapable of patience, forbearance, forgiveness and even common sense and enlightened self-interest. Men, who in private life behave as reasonable and moral being, become transformed as soon as they are acting as representatives of a National Person into the likeness of their stupid, hysterical and insanely touchy tribal divinity.
Ends and Means, Aldous Huxley
Very bad. While working on nuclear policy for RAND (a keystone of the military establishment), Daniel Ellsberg discovered “the severe limitations of sheer intellect”. He noticed that he and his colleagues were beginning to be treated as if they were a new priest caste. They began to believe it. Saving the world from within the Temple of Reason they thought, all the while they were drawing up plans for its demise. The Reaper, it seems, also thinks himself saviour.
I just know that somewhere in the deep recesses of the Pentagon, and whatever equivalent the Russians and Chinese have, that some analysts have drawn up the following plan. In the face of two existential threats to organised human life, the solution is clear: a limited nuclear war. This will have the benefit of reducing an increasingly burdensome population, and send enough debris into the atmosphere so as to reflect those ghastly rays. The main effect, however, will be psychological.
All over the world, viewers will see the catastrophe play out on their screens — once buzzing cities reduced to chemical dust, mountains of flame, the millions left blind, deaf, and deformed, the countless shades that used to have names — and realise the tremendous and terrible power they wield. It may very well lead the semi-starved pioneers of the Age of Atom to reach the conclusion made by the leading engineer of the Chernobyl project, Valeri Legasov, “I have come to the paradoxical conclusion that technology must be protected from Man”.
This effort would require the military establishments of several countries to cooperate (don’t kid yourself and think civilians will get a look in): agree on the area to sacrifice, and make all the precautions necessary to keep the affair somewhat contained. They’ll have real estate to consider.
Internally these monsters are called doves. Yet, those fools who maintain a residual hope that their species is not a complete write-off, might have to ask themselves, are they so wrong?
Huxley was certainly the prophet for our present. His greater appreciation of science and psychology allowed him to predict a widespread dependence on drugs. And his understanding that the mass is, at all times and in all places, complicit in its submission was vital. But perhaps Orwell, with his obsession on cynical power-play, will prove a better guide for the near future.
During his early millennia as a rugged outcast, Madách’s Adam believed himself God. He came to accept that he shared the same fate as all of Earth’s inhabitants: damnation. And all that really set Man apart? He knew why.