Thanksgiving Day, 2010:
The Uses and Abuses of History
“We Irish think otherwise.” Bishop Berkeley
It is an old saw that you can prove anything by quoting scripture. The same can be said for drawing historical analogies that both illuminate and blind us to the uniqueness of the time we live in.
Conservative politicians whenever they have to confront the ambitions of a dictator–be he Ho Chi Minh or Saddam Hussein–love to refer to Neville Chamberlain and his Munich Agreement with Hitler as an example of the consequences of appeasing dictators. In both these more recent cases of Viet Nam and Iraq, the analogy was a poor fit, and our foreign policy was simply camouflage for an American President’s expansionist ambitions in protection of American economic interests. The perceptions and descriptions were false–from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the Pentagon Papers or the latest Wikileaks about Iraq and Afghanistan–and so the foreign policies of LBJ, Papa Bush, and Little Bush failed because they were based upon delusions and deceptions.
The quantum physicist Niels Bohr once noted that “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Bohr was thinking of Schrödinger and how matter seemed to behave as both wave and particle, and one could have two opposed sets of equations, equally valid.
“History is the lie commonly agreed upon,” said the French philosopher Voltaire, but the Spanish philosopher George Santyana countered with: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In my last column I also quoted another but more bardic American philosopher, Bob Dylan, who noted back in the sixties that “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones.”
I think most of us in this new century do feel that something is going on, but we certainly don’t know what it is, and so we reach out for historical analogies to enlighten us. Paul Krugman in theNew York Times refers quite often to the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties, while others compare us to the Gilded Age of American poverty and enormous wealth at the turn into the twentieth century, the century that became “the American Century.” Now it definitely feels that the twenty-first century is decidedly not the American Century, but may well become the Chinese Century—that is, if lack of clean water, public health, and industrial pollution don’t do them in.
But all these recent historical analogies just don’t seem to fit, so perhaps we should, as they do in cinematography, have a dolly shot in which we move up and back to take in a larger historical landscape in which the action is situated.
I think we need to go back beyond the industrial revolution to the Enclosure Acts in Great Britain and the Highland Clearances in Scotland to understand what is going on in the current redistribution of wealth and resources in the United States.
In the medieval Great Chain of Being, laird and crofter (lord and cottage dweller) were both involved in a feudal web of obligations. The commons was not capitalist private property but a community area for all to graze their cattle or gather firewood. Commoners could use the common and not be declared poachers on the lord’s private estate. Unfortunately, commoners did not sit in Parliament, so over the centuries the men of property began to write new laws in their own favor that began to enclose the commons and declare it to be the property of the adjacent estates.
The poor could no longer scrounge out a living, gathering firewood or hunting for rabbits, and their cottages began to decay into hovels. In the Highland Clearances, the lairds decided to scrape the land clean of these unproductive parasites and replace them with sheep.
At this time, traditional cottage industries of weaving and spinning began to be replaced by economies of scale in the great mills of Lancashire and the new manufacturing cities of Birmingham and Manchester. The rural hovels became replaced with urban slums. For those who could find no work in the new working class, there was emigration to the New World, as Great Britain’s poor began to overwhelm and push the native Americans farther west. Scotland had its Highland Clearances, and the United States had the Cherokee Indians’ “trail of tears” as their treaties were violated and they were forced out of Alabama into Oklahoma by greedy speculators and land developers.
It seems to me that such a process of Clearance is really what is going on now. When companies like Walmart shifted manufactures to partners in China and refused to deal with companies that would not manufacture their cheaper goods in China, the working classes of the USA were cleared out of the way.
For a while in the nineteen-fifties the defense industries of California had created enough wealth to subsidize the California Master Plan of higher education under Governor Earl Warren, and it was this plan that laid the foundation for what later became Silcon Valley with its new computer industries. But now that these industries have been shifted to Taiwan, China, Japan, and Korea, that economic miracle is ending. The Apple computer on which I am writing this column was not made in Cupertino, California.
The new conservative politicians are proposing no new investments in higher education, but are seeking to cut back on all social programs in the name of balancing the budget. Instead of trickling down, wealth like cream is now rising to the top, and just as farming was replaced with industry in the eighteenth century, industry is now being replaced with finance in the twenty-first century.
But, Wall Street, we have a problem. There are no industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham to sop up the dark flow of the crofters into the slums, and there is no New World for emigration to relocate our working classes. In fact, illegal Latin American immigration is being used by property owners to replace the high costs of domestic union labor with a disenfranchised class that cannot vote Democratic and against the interests of the top one percent of America. Soon, even the children of illegal aliens that are born in this country will be disenfranchised by new Republican Party proposed legislation. The conservatives would like to see the United States adopt a more Swiss approach to the definition of citizenship.
So as you can see, what is happening is a massive social transformation of planetary proportions. In the nineteenth century, local communities were transformed into new national societies in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The misery of Victorian Great Britain became the subject of the works of Dickens, Mayhew, Engles, and Carleton. The working class could do nothing about this transformation, for they had no say or vote. And now, once again, the working classes can do nothing about our transformation because they have been robbed of education and dumbed down by the media–media that are owned by the top one percent–and now vote eagerly for the destruction of the middle class.
But even voting doesn’t really matter anymore, as the electoral process has become one of voting for the celebrity of your choice who was able to raise the most money for TV ads from the top one percent who own the minds and bodies of the country.
A planetary restructuring is going on in which the nation state is no longer the primary agent. The accumulation of new wealth in China, Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel is creating a new kind of authoritarian polity—not feudal, capitalist, or communist.
W. B. Yeats, in his little-read esoteric book A Vision was right; we are experiencing a shift from “the Primary to the Antithetical Gyre,” and the materialistic, bourgeois, and democratic era is coming to an end and is being replaced by the rule of a proud, anti-democratic, and hierophantic elite. But as Yeats knew from alchemy, these cultural processes are enantiodromic: they begin in one position and then turn into their opposite at the point of their maximum development.
What all this means is that the Goldman Sachs pirates and privateers of this Newer World are effecting a shift from productive industries to abstract finance but are also creating a volatile, unstable world–a virtual economy as unsubstantial as a tranche of a derivative. This new planetary world is one of states of mind, not matter or patriotic turf, but these imaginal states can change in the twinkling of an eye from infinitesimal initial conditions that can have infinite consequences.
So as you sit down at the table this holiday and give thanks, realize that once again the natives and the pilgrims have entered a New World that they cannot possibly imagine.
And yet it is its very unpredictability that opens up a complex dynamical system to individual intervention. Obama failed to understand the cultural opening he was given, and through both a failure of nerve and imagination, he chose not to become a leader but remained an inner city social organizer trying to work out a compromise between rival neighborhood gangs. As we give thanks this week, let us pray that the next cultural attempt will be from an imaginative leader and not a manipulative demagogue.
William Irwin Thompson (born July, 1938) is known primarily as a social philosopher and cultural critic, but he has also been writing and publishing poetry throughout his career and received the Oslo International Poetry Festival Award in 1986. He has made significant contributions to cultural history, social criticism, the philosophy of science, and the study of myth. He describes his writing and speaking style as “mind-jazz on ancient texts”. He is an astute reader of science, social science, history, and literature. He is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association.
His book, Still Travels: Three Long Poems was published in 2009 by Wild River Books. Order a copy from Amazon.
Works by William Irwin Thompson
Memoir – Farewell Address at the Lindisfarne Fellows Conference
Memoir – Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne: 1972
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part I
Memoir – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island
Memoir – Building a Dream – Part One: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – My Dinner with Andre Gregory: Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, 1977-1979
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Shadow Side Part Two: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Building a Dream/The Cathedral Part Three: Lindisfarne in Crestone, Colorado, 1979-1997
Memoir – Conclusion: The Economic Relevance of Lindisfarne
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary: Reflections of a Homeschooling Parent
Memoir – Sex and the Commune
Memoir – Raising Evan and Hilary
Memoir – With Gregory Bateson’s Mind in Nature
After Heart Surgery: Hokusai’s Great Wave
A Lazy Sunday Afternoon
Nancy Grayson’s Bookstore
On Reading “The Penguin Book of English Verse”: on my iPad and Exercise Bike
Wild River Books/Poetry – Nightwatch and Dayshift: Cezanne
Anatolian Days and Nights and the Cultural Evolution of Spirituality
And the Votes are In: The American Elections of 2010
Avatar – When Technology Displaces Culture
Bedtime Story for a Civilization
The Big Picture: Reflections on Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
The Big Picture, II
Child Abuse and the Catholic Church
The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur
From Shamanism to Religion, Part Two
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality, Part Three
From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality: Conclusion
January 1, 2011: Reflections on the Philosophical Notions of Republicans
January 6, 2011 – Part Two: The Etherealization of Capitalism
Nature and Invisible Environments
Of Culture and the Nature of Extinction
On Nuclear Power
On Religion – Part One
On Religion and Nationalism: Ireland, Israel, and Palestine
On Transnational Military Interventions
A Pagan Ur-Text of the Lebor Gebála Érenn
Part 1 – The Shift from Industrial to a Planetary Civilization
Part 2 – The Shift from an Industrial to Planetary Civilization
Part 3 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The Recovery of a Cosmic Orientation
Part 4 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – The Global War for Drugs
Part 5 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – The New Jerusalem
Part 6 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Catastrophes as the Spur to Institute Tricameral Legislature
Part 7 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Complex Dynamical Systems and Tricameral Legislatures
Part 8 – The Shift from a Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Israel and Palestine: Sic transit gloria mundi
Part 9 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civlization – On Sarah Palin and the Technocratic Society
Part 10 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – On Conspiracy Narratives as Expressive of the Transition from the Nation: State to the Noetic Polity
Part 11 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Global Awareness and Personal Identity
Part 12 – The Shift from an Industrial to a Planetary Civilization – Conclusion: The United Nations
Political Meditation for the Fourth of July, 2011: Can We Shift from Empire Back to Republic?
St. David’s Day, 2011, Technology and Social Change
Saint Patrick’s Day, 2010: Us and Them: Identity and the State
Some Reflections on Hurricane Sandy and an Outline for a New Civilization
Technical Hubris: and the Sinkhole of Obama’s Centrism
Television and Social Class
Thanksgiving Day, 2010: The Uses and Abuses of History
The Elections of 2010
Thoughts on My new Kindle App: on My Mac iPad