Monthly Archives: September 2014

Who seeks world domination

You are in Syria to fight–and to win–against Hitler, who seeks world domination. And a big part of your job is to make friends for your cause–because this is a war of ideas, just as much as of tanks, planes and guns.

A Short Guide to Syria, an American WW2-era military booklet

Deep culture

The New England Watch and Ward Society (founded as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) was a Boston, Massachusetts organization involved in the censorship of books and the performing arts from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. After the 1920s, its emphasis changed to combating the spread of gambling. In 1957 the organization’s name was changed to the New England Citizens Crime Commission, and in 1967 it became the Massachusetts Council on Crime and Correction. In 1975 it was merged with another organization to form Community Resources for Justice, a group that promotes prison reform and rights for ex-convicts.

The first imagined solidarity

If the expansion of bureaucratic middle classes was a relatively even phenomenon, occurring at comparable rates in both advanced and backward states of Europe, the rise of commercial and industrial bourgeoisies was of course highly uneven — massive and rapid in some places, slow and stunted in others. But no matter where, this ‘rise’ has to be understood in its relationship to vernacular print-capitalism.

The pre-bourgeois ruling classes generated their cohesions in some sense outside language, or at least outside print-language. If the ruler of Siam took a Malay noblewoman as a concubine, or if the King of England married a Spanish princess — did they ever talk seriously together? Solidarities were the products of kinship, clientship, and personal loyalties. ‘French’ nobles could assist ‘English’ kings against ‘French’ monarchs, not on the basis of shared language or culture, but, Machiavellian calculations aside, of shared kinsmen and friendships. The relatively small size of traditional aristocracies, their fixed political bases, and the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance, meant that their cohesions as classes were as much concrete as imagined. An illiterate nobility could still act as a nobility. But the bourgeoisie? Here was a class which, figuratively speaking, came into being as a class only in so many replications. Factory-owner in Lille was connected to factory-owner in Lyon only by reverberation. They had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print-language. For an illiterate bourgeoisie is scarcely imaginable. Thus in world-historical terms bourgeoisies were the first classes to achieve solidarities on an essentially imagined basis. But in a nineteenth-century Europe in which Latin had been defeated by vernacular print-capitalism for something like two centuries, these solidarities had an outermost stretch limited by vernacular legibilities. To put it another way, one can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

The beginnings of imagined communities

What were the characteristics of the first American newspapers, North or South? They began essentially as appendages of the market. Early gazettes contained — aside from news about the metropole — commercial news (when ships would arrive and  depart, what prices were current for what commodities in what ports), as well as colonial political appointments, marriages of the wealthy, and so forth. In other words, what brought together, on the same page, this marriage with that ship, this price with that bishop, was the very structure of the colonial administration and market-system itself. In this way, the newspaper of Caracas quite naturally, and even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellowreaders, to whom these ships, brides, bishops and prices belonged. In time, of course, it was only to be expected that political elements would enter in.

One fertile trait of such newspapers was always their provinciality. A colonial Creole might read a Madrid newspaper if he got the chance (but it would say nothing about his world), but many a peninsular official, living down the same street, would, if he could help it, not read the Caracas production. An asymmetry infinitely replicable in other colonial situations. Another such trait was plurality. The Spanish-American journals that developed towards the end of the eighteenth century were written in full awareness of provincials in worlds parallel to their own. The newspaper-readers of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Bogota, even if they did not read each other’s newspapers, were nonetheless quite conscious of their existence. Hence a well-known doubleness in early Spanish-American nationalism, its alternating grand stretch and particularistic localism. The fact that early Mexican nationalists wrote of themselves as nosotros los Americanos and of their country as nuestra America, has been interpreted as revealing the vanity of the local Creoles who, because Mexico was far the most valuable of Spain’s American possessions, saw themselves as the centre of the New World. But, in fact, people all over Spanish America thought of themselves as ‘Americans,’ since this term denoted precisely the shared fatality of extra-Spanish birth.

At the same time, we have seen that the very conception of the newspaper implies the refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also how  important to that imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time. Such a simultaneity the immense stretch of the Spanish American Empire, and the isolation of its component parts, made difficult to imagine. Mexican Creoles might learn months later of developments in Buenos Aires, but it would be through Mexican newspapers, not those of the Rio de la Plata; and the events would appear as ‘similar to’ rather than ‘part of’ events in Mexico.

In this sense, the ‘failure’ of the Spanish-American experience to generate a permanent Spanish-America-wide nationalism reflects both the general level of development of capitalism and technology in the late eighteenth century and the ‘local’ backwardness of Spanish capitalism and technology in relation to the administrative stretch of the empire. (The world-historical era in which each nationalism is born probably has a significant impact on its scope. Is Indian nationalism not inseparable from colonial administrative-market unification, after the Mutiny, by the most formidable and advanced of the imperial powers?)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Also, the thesis:

What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations; to put it another way, none provided the framework of a new consciousness — the scarcely-seen
periphery of its vision – as opposed to centre-field objects of its admiration or disgust. In accomplishing this specific task, pilgrim Creole functionaries and provincial Creole printmen played the decisive historic role.

The few thousands

The British Empire is the exercise of the authority and legal right of the British Crown and Government over sundry territories situated in all parts of the globe, and over the various states, governments, peoples, nations, tribes, and settlers located therein

The extent of this Empire can be expressed either in terms of territory or in the number of its inhabitants. It comprises an area of approximately 13½ million square miles which is populated by some 460 millions of human beings. These are drawn from all the principal sub-divisions of the human race:—white, black, red and yellow, and (as its name indicates) the ultimate dominion over this vast mass is exercised in theory and practice solely by the British with their white colonial kinsmen. These number a little more than the odd 60 millions; so that on the most favourable view 400 millions of variously coloured peoples are subjected beneath the rule of 60 millions—mostly living at other ends of the earth.

This view, however, misrepresents the actual state of affairs completely. The overwhelming majority of the whites are congregated in a few main centres: 47 millions (approximately) in the British Islands, and the bulk of the remainder in Canada, Australia and South Africa. The greater part of the “coloured” races therefore are ruled in practice by the few thousands of white persons who form part of the official machinery of the British State.


Civil wars

Civil wars are first and foremost about local score settling. The trigger isn’t some guy going door to door saying “you know those Yazidis? We’re starting a group to get rid of them, would you like to know why?” Everyone was already itching to kill the Yazidis. The trigger in most civil wars is the sense that the long-repressed vengeance on your nearest and dearest enemies has become possible. This means that much of the killing in civil wars follows the demographics of murder, rather than genocide.

Civil wars are almost never geographic at first. Syria was not divided into “rebel” and “government” territories until after several weeks of fighting. Why? Because the government troops and the people who hated them were evenly dispersed around the country. Once the shooting broke out, some local battles went one way, some went another, and each side eventually had to work out supply lines connecting places where they’d won. Your loyalties aren’t determined by your residency, your residency is determined by which army you’re running away from.

There is no home front in a civil war. Every action by every side degrades the lives of both sides. Think of the worst divorce you’ve ever seen your friends go through, and think of the worst moment in that divorce, and that’s how everybody feels in a civil war all the time.

Civil wars aren’t anybody’s program. Usually the two sides each feel like they are legitimate, and can’t figure out what the other guys are playing at. They think “shit, these guys are clowns, lets just get them out of the way.” Everybody underestimates the consequences of their actions, the time it will take, and the dying that will happen as a result. Nobody in Syria in 2011 was saying “right, lets call a protest, and in three years we’ll be holed up in a burning hotel shooting twelve-year-olds in the head as they pull their mothers’ bodies from a drainage canal!”

No, we aren’t headed for a civil war. For now, the local scores are too stupid to settle — what would a red-state insurgent mob do if the veil were torn, burn coal? Shoot latinos? Give it a decade, maybe, but not now.

— Ran Prieur

I don’t buy the last paragraph. Here are two more quotes:

Congo. Nobody knows much about it, because nobody wants to. It’s been in the news lately, with a new movement called M23 sweeping through eastern Congo, taking the provincial capital of Goma, and then promising to withdraw—the kind of story you read, then drop, because you know it’ll never make any sense to you. The most anyone’ll say is “Durn shame, all those dead people. It’s some tribal thing, right?”

Well, it’s a safe bet that this killing is tribal, because that’s what war is: tribal killing. When we call African killings “tribal,” what we really mean is that we don’t get it, the tribal differences seem ridiculous to us—in other words, they all look alike. But when you’re inside a tribal division, it’s different. If Romney drove through my old neighborhood in Bakersfield, he’d take one look and say “trash,” but when you lived in that neighborhood, there were blocks that were like kryptonite to you and others where you were safe, houses that were like Abode of Evil and others that were Good Country People.

Even when we say a war isn’t tribal, it almost always is. Take the US Civil War, “brother against brother.” Except it wasn’t brother against brother very often. It was two very different tribes, Yankee and Dixie—different religions, different economies, different ethnic groups. Tribal all the way. So yeah, it’s tribal in Congo, but no more than most other wars. That’s not what’s made the killing drag on and on like this. …

[T]he Tutsi and Hutu traded massacres in Rwanda and Burundi until 1994, when what most people think of as “Rwanda” happened: The Hutu, who had built a good genocidal organization in Rwanda, called on their people to kill the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The Hutu weren’t warriors, but they were very obedient, orderly farmers, and the Tutsi were dispersed and disarmed. So the Hutu answered the call and managed to chop and burn 800,000 people to death in a few months. It’s not easy to kill that many people, that fast, with nothing but pangas and fire, but the Hutu went at it like the good little workers they always have been. It’s always that way: the best genocidaires, as the French call ’em, are never the big loud macho tribes, always the polite, educated, orderly ones. The Hutu got the call to kill and rape and steal, and they did. They still don’t know what they did wrong; most of the few Hutu who ever got called to account said they were just doing what the Radio, “Radio Thousand Hills,” told them to do. It’s a myth, by the way, that people have this thing called a “conscience” or that they suffer from stress, etc., after a massacre. Try reading Jean Hatzfeld’s book, Machete Season, and you’ll see the main thing the Hutu genocidaires feel is regret that they have to answer to a court now and then. The whole notion of guilt doesn’t cross their minds.

War Nerd

The Right-Wing Blob?  Why would he be envious of these people?   Again, the armchair psychology seems so manifestly inadequate one wonders why the Blob bothers.  Accusations of “hatred” are akin to the Right-Wing Blob’s favorite trope about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”:  it is just a rhetorical trick to dismiss well-grounded moral outrage about wrongful conduct.

One more example, from the blogosphere’s leading practitioner of condescension from below:  Glenn “InstaIgnorance” Reynolds denounces Krugman as a “sad and irrelevant little man.”  He does so, as best I can tell, without any sense of the irony of a middling legal scholar at the University of Tennessee who posts on a blog denouncing as “sad,” “irrelevant” and “little” a Nobel Laureate in Economics at Princeton University who writes for The New York Times.  And, of course, Krugman is so “irrelevant” that even a throwaway blog post necessitates the Right-Wing Blob, with its thousands of members, to swing into action!

And so it goes.  These people are literally devoid of independent thought, they are just bits of slime that ooze off the Blob when the Blob is poked, and in the process, they do violence to the language, stand reality on its head, and contribute to the continuing degradation of the public culture.

— Brian Leiter

What is America? Maybe it’s Southeast Asia, with people taking to the hills to escape the state, and the state strongly disliking the ornery hill tribes; maybe it’s the British Empire, full of peasants who want to preserve themselves but ruled over by a Macaulay-filled great power that doesn’t think the peasants’ culture is worth preserving; or maybe it’s the Middle East, full of religious crusaders who think the backwards Satan-worshipers in the mountains ought to be made to not exist. But one thing is for sure: the tribe that reads Brian Leiter — they’re the “educated, orderly ones”.

I don’t think it’s red-state insurgents that we need to worry about. Secessionists who want to be left alone don’t make good insurgents. Lowland crusaders, on the other hand…

Thomas Jefferson was wrong (sort of)

Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia. (source)

But his general point is still interesting:

The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. … Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people.

The problem, of course, is that belief can carry thedish loading, and a multiplicity of mutually opposed thedes can cause problems for a state.

A seventeenth-century one-party state

Elegant and urbane, [Perry] Miller’s works successfully explained the history of Puritan Massachusetts by evoking a “New England Mind” culled from a narrow range of remarkably abstruse and knotty theological treatises. Although subsequent scholarship has refuted many of the details (and even some of the essentials) of Miller’s vision, his basic strategy of explicating the behavior of the Bay Puritans in terms of their theological beliefs and carefully formulated doctrines has been more than vindicated by its dominant role in the literature of Puritan studies. As a social historian with pronounced naturalistic inclinations, I was deeply troubled by this whole idealist mode of explanation. Yet there was no denying its success. I became obsessed with trying to explain why this strategy was so fruitful in interpreting the saga of New England Puritanism. In general terms, I found myself raising the old Cartesian question of interaction to the historical plane, namely, how did the ethereal elements of the world of ideas and mentalities actually impact the material world of historical events? More specifically, what were the social and political features of early Massachusetts history that gave technical theological doctrines such powerful causal efficacy?

The most plausible answer to my question came from David Hall’s and Micahel Walzer’s studies of the Puritan ministry. Sophisticated theological doctrines shaped the history of massachusetts because the educated divines who studied and formulated these doctrines had a preponderant influence over the colony’s social and political life. This answer raised even more questions. How could an educated elite of ministers (and magistrates, as I learned from Timothy Breen) hold such dominant power in a fledgling colonial settlement? Granted the deference normally accorded a university degree, these educated leaders lacked the large-scale property interests normally associated with a ruling stratum. Wht were the institutional arrangements and practices that facilitated this remarkable empowerment? Finally, why did this elite choose to use their power to impose an order on Massachusetts derived from academic theology? What did it mean that the Bay Colony was patterned after a high cultural theory?

I sought the answers to these questions in the sociology of intellectuals. Two works in particular — Alvin Gouldner’s three-volume Dark Side of the Dialectic and George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi’s The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power — confirmed my most unsettling hunches. Professional intellectuals and intelligentsia comprised a collective interest. They were the great unexamined class in modern political history, whose will to power occasionally took the form of revolutionary ideological politics. I had a greater appreciation for Michael Walzer’s claim that the Puritan divines were the precursors of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. This realization undermined my whole conception of the class struggles that underlay modern ideological politics. This realization undermined my whole conception of the class struggles that underlay modern ideological politics. It also failed to explain the different role and status of the Puritan educated elite in Massachusetts and England. Although the clergy was undoubtedly a critical element in the English Puritan movement, I remained convinced with Christopher Hill that its ultimate result was a bourgeois revolution that, in the last instance, served the interests of the landed gentry and urban merchants. Why did the Puritan intellectuals emerge as the dominant political group in Massachusetts while their colleagues in England were reduced to the status of ideological cheerleaders?

As I pored over the primary documents, gradually an answer began to emerge. Massachusetts differed from England in two vital respects. First, unlike their English counterparts, the Bay Puritans were not a small minority ruling over a divided society, much of which was ideologically disaffected. By excluding the ungodly, the founders of early Massachusetts were spared the necessity of either purging or accommodating such elements. Second, the thinking class that contributed to the colony’s settlement and foundation was an extremely cohesive and class-conscious group. They constructed the institutions of church and state to facilitate the transformation of their high cultural and theoretical expertise into social and political power. They did this by creating a new form of political authority that I have called cultural domination. They legitimated their power by claiming to be the authentic bearers of the Puritan cultural and religious tradition. Through them, they insisted, the established Christian wisdom of the ages would exercise its sway over the New World Bible commonwealth. While the Puritan thinking class in England may have helped initiate the tradition of radical ideological politics, their colleagues in the Bay created a stable revolutionary regime. Puritan Massachusetts was a seventeenth-century one-party state.

Darren Staloff, Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts.

Cultural domination in Puritan Massachusetts

The Puritan ministers […] created a completely new form of political authority — in the Weberian sense of legitimate power — which I have called cultural domination. Cultural domination, as here conceived, requires four formal supports.

First of all, like charismatic authority, it requires recognition in the form of ritual election or some similar mechanism of oath swearing or covenant signing. Fealty is sworn to the “correct” cultural formation, in this case Puritan biblicism, and the officeholder is empowered only as the specially trained bearer and interpreter of that cultural tradition. The “laity” generally conceive of this high cultural training — whether centered around biblicism or some other intellectually legitimating principle like reason or rationality — as being endowed with an automatic efficacy that need simply be applied to any problem to generate a univocal solution. The biblical truth is eternal and immutable, claimed Thomas Hooker, “but the alteration grows, according to God’s most just judgment, and their own deservings.”

Such belief gives rise to the second formal requirement, that officially authorized bearers of the cultural tradition must always agree in their public formulations or at least not disagree. If this condition is violated, the laity may come to see the cultural tradition as an amorphous collection of expressions or principles manipulated by “mandarins” for their own aggrandizement.

The third requirement is that all public expression of the culturally able must be bestowed on these public acts, including forced attendance, titulary homage, and silent obedience. Finally, to ensure the stability of the entire system, unauthorized cultural expressions must be carefully monitored and severely suppressed when they contradict or threaten to “desacralize” the authorized formulas.

Darren Staloff, Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts. (source)