In 2001, Tom Engelhardt launched TomDispatch, a site that’s become one of the last bastions for intellectual discourse in what I think can fairly be called, in this latest iteration, a Trumpian America, in response to the Bush Administration, and primarily to its reactions to September 11, 2001 (9/11). As one writer describes our current culture:
“Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.” – Andrew Bacevich, Slouching Towards Mar-a-Lago
While I try my best to avoid inventing hyperbolic clichés to describe something complex (and what is not complex when you make an effort to examine something with your rational tools of mind?) I’d briefly describe TomDispatch’s emergence on the Internet as: an intellectual response to the imperial activities of the Bush Administration as it captured the nation’s sanity, and, as a consequence, its conscience, in the process of responding imperially to the events of September 11, 2001. That Administration did so by sending the blunt instruments of our military establishment to the Middle East where it set the template for America’s Neoconservative driven 21st Century by sledge hammering apart the already damaged and fragile governing edifices of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s fragile, sending both nations as well as much of the Strategic Elipse into waves of chaos that continue today, nearly 16 years later.
I don’t know how I first found the site, not sure precisely when, but some time around 2003 as my memory serves me. I followed some reference with a link, I suppose, because I was reading, therefore seeking out the works of people like Chalmers Johnson, Rebecca Solnit, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, and the like, as I was watching the events unfold globally after 9/11. I recall thinking then that Americans were on the verge of becoming the more hysterically insane human inhabitants of the planet, but surely the majority of the people will calm themselves from their natural reaction to watching those planes fly into the Twin Towers that day, and then we as a nation will recover our collective sanity and conscience and begin a more rational process of making sense of the world once again.
While that has yet come to pass, at least to my satisfaction, I have, meanwhile, continued to enjoy the high caliber writing that Tom attracted to his site. I find writing that does depart from the hysterical chaos of mainstream media, and offers a more deeply probing approach to the daily events. And I also have to thank TomDispatch for opening the door to a broad array of writers I had yet to meet in my own reading world.
Andrew Bacevich is one of those writers. Here’s a TomDispatch interview that will introduce anyone interested to know his background, thus the context that goes into what he writes: TomDispatch Interview: Bacevich on the Limits of Imperial Power and here, Part II. What I appreciate is that TomDispatch brings, with intellectuals like Bacevich, a range of intellectuals to the conversation. This is important to me because I find a commonality in all intellectual thought, but with that commonality I also appreciate a difference in cultural context that generates its version of intelligence. With that I get a chance to think about things in ways that are somewhat familiar to my own process but at the same time different enough to encourage me to expand my way of forming opinions. It slows me down just a bit.
Today, Bacevich writes about our current cultural hysteria. Here’s an introductory remark I feel worth noting, mainly because it echoes my own accounting of the moment:
“In his article today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich suggests another author worth revisiting — novelist John Updike — and a caution against worrying too much about President Trump and not nearly enough about the culture, the society, the country, and the people who put him in the White House. “Trump is not cause, but consequence,” writes Bacevich tellingly.”
…too much about Trump and not nearly enough about the culture…. Yes. That’s it. But then, what does worrying about the culture really get us? How does that translate into what I would like to see as a return to some semblance of national dignity? I doubt that collectively we’ll come up with a simple answer. But the questions need to be asked, and kept out there as something to work at answering, and maybe somehow the doubting and the wondering will restrain the panic that drives us to electing examples of ourselves that we then turn to look at with deep revulsion and even horror.
With that I give you a connection to the thoughts of Andrew Bacevich:
Slouching Toward Mar-a-Lago
The Post-Cold-War Consensus Collapses
By Andrew J. Bacevich
MYSTERIOUS giant craters 50ft wide have begun appearing in northern Siberia as temperatures rise in the region.
I’ve been trying to keep track of the science on these crater events since they first got noticed back in 2014. I think the key points in the article are in synch with the the common observations that have been coming out since the first crater was discovered. The theme is, the tundra is melting. The melting releases both CO2 and methane. This has happened before. Yes, true, but the last time the geologic record tells us it happened was 130,000 years ago, and that permafrost melting happened over thousands of years. This one is happening over decades. While the actual sinkholes remain an unresolved phenomenon by the strict, objective standards of science, the melting of the permafrost has become much more thoroughly understood.
If you see the world from a systems view, which is the view I learned while studying ecology back in the early 70s, then you can begin to imagine the entire earth as a complete system. There are also systems within systems to take into account. Systems within systems are connected and with that connection you get feedback loops. What’s happening with the melting of the permafrost is part of a positive feedback loop process.
Positive feed backs can accelerate effects in a geometric fashion. Thus a linear projection of global warming can quickly become a geometric effect with an acceleration of the warming. That’s ecology and systems thinking 101. One of the first principles needed to be learned to understand systems thinking.
If you don’t teach system thinking in the education system, people don’t even get a chance learn what it is and therefore can’t make a deeper, richer sense of this kind of interconnecting, narrative enhancing information. IF people can’t put together an interconnecting narrative (why do we love storytelling and especially mythological storytelling? I’d suggest because it helps to build a sense of wholeness in our understanding of the world), their understanding of scattered bits of information presented in various ways through media remains peripheral, isolated, and fails to become part of a general narrative about what’s going on in the world.
I’m feeling very safe in saying people like Donald Trump never were exposed to this way of thinking, or if they were, they were successful in ignoring them. Why do I feel safe with this view? Because I brought it to my job as a systems analyst and strategic planning consultant, which I sold as a skill to corporations like the ones run by Trump and other CEOs. Their “art” of making “deals” has no relationship to this level of systemic understanding of the entire world. Their skills are isolated events that are considered successes in the moment, but no consideration is given to the long term systemic feed backs they may cause. They relied on nerds like me to pay attention to that, and in their corporate reality, in their world view of making the deal and solving the short term problems of keeping their corporations profitable to keep their stockholders happy, and therefore being a success, we were mostly in the way. At best they might breeze through the executive summary of a 250 page systems analysis and strategic plan we labored to put together for them.
Unfortunately these are the people making decisions about what goes into causing some of these positive feedback loops. It’s like, if your body had a fever, and your doctor told you what infection was causing that fever, and what you were doing to enhance that infection, rather than inhibit it, and you blissfully ignored that advice and went right on with your addictive behavior that was actually the cause, your body may not, in fact, probably would not be able to compensate for the infection, and the chance of it killing you would accelerate as the infection sets in and spreads all through the body.
I posted this essay on my Facebook timeline today, where I’ve been writing lately. Very frustrating writing environment. This essay, however, may be worth saving here. In Facebook, I know this will just drift off into oblivion. It sort of offers my very own version of what I see as the big picture explanation for this latest entry into the decline of the American Empire: The Trump Presidency. But even more, it’s about the decline of the global complex system, a system that goes by many names. A more commonly popular name lately has been the neoliberal global system.
I begin by offering two fresh versions attempting to explain the Trump phenomenon:
One from Chris Hedges: After Trump and Pussy Hats. In this Chris argues that kleptocracy (corporate power) made the Trump Presidency possible.
Tom Engelhardt, whose Empire Project I’ve been following since it emerged on-line after the start of the illegal Iraq Invasion, argues that the Iraq War, and the emergent war culture that followed, brought Trump to the White House: President Blowback: How the Invasion of Iraq Came Home
I think the answer’s not either or, it’s both. The two go together, war and corporations. I don’t really know how, but somehow I saw that when I got off that bus in boot camp back in 1966, ignorant though I was, deprived though I’d been of the accurate historical perspective that would have told me the true story during my so-called institutionalized, state-approved public education up to my eighteenth year, I somehow saw that I was a prisoner in a massive system I at that point did not understand. So I know from experience it’s possible to see what’s taking place, even without thoroughly understanding it. Whether change can occur without a thorough understanding is an entirely different question. Without actually having a solid answer, I’ve been a part of an active anti-war resistance movement since I got back from Vietnam.
Then, after I studied anthropology and ecology, I began to see how a global economic system engineered by transnational corporations, threatened indigenous cultures, stomping them out as it took over their habitats, and turned many of them into industrial monocultures feeding the industrial matrix that includes Europe, the United States, and now China-rising. Of course the displaced indigenous culture individuals had no choice but to migrate once their habitat disappeared, so now “civilized” humans are experiencing an “immigration problem” with the Trump Presidency as its latest emblem of that 10,000 year, civilization-activated dynamic.
In the process civilized human beings have grown to massive proportions, ecologically speaking. They walk around looking like normal human sapiens, but their actual size is quite deceptively huge in terms of habitat encroachment and species displacement, with our precious planet now entering a Holocene Sixth Mass Extinction event. The cause is not hard to determine with a little scientific inquiry. Yes, science, the same tool that helped cause the problem also explains what the problem is. In 1980, William Catton tagged this emerging technologically civilized species: homo colossus. I’ve never forgotten that image.Homo Colossus stomping through eco systems on the planet. Civilized humans, can be measured by the size of their ecological footprint, and the evolved biology of the planet it crushes as it goes.
So I’ve been an active part of an anti corporate movement as well. That endeavor has taken a lot more effort to undertake. The effect of a complex global corporatocracy on our lives is much more deeply embedded in our consciousness than most of us consciously recognize. It takes some serious work to reveal what’s really going on. Conspiracy theories are the usual shortcut that many take when the size of the task begins to emerge from the depths of our collective subconscious. For most of us in these industrially civilized nations, it’s our very culture that we live and breathe, even if the majority of us are innocently following along, living our lives, doing the jobs that we are offered in these complex systems those distant authoritarian managers manage.
Everything Trump is doing now after getting into the White House is an act of upper management. Perhaps with little appearance of enlightenment of past managers like FDR, but he’s busy trying to save the kleptocratic system — of which he is one of the reigning members. That’s what’s happening: kleptocrats are saving their system. Doesn’t matter what name you give it, and them; some like capitalistic system and oligarchs, but names don’t really tell us much about it. The problem is abstract, structural, systemic and complex.
Our systemic protections, code-named regulations and entitlements, were never really ours. They were “allowed” by the kleptocrats as long as they didn’t interfere with the system itself. It’s clear because they can so easily take them away with the sweeping brush of an executive order. Almost nothing in this system is capable of preventing the kleptocrats from exercising their will by the will of the people. All we really do is legitimize their authority to manage the system by voting. Their concern when we protest is of minor importance to the complex systems they manage. They have the ethics and morality of machines, and what they do is entirely based in the logic of making the systems work. Management is one of the most sociopathic, institutionalized processes that human beings have ever invented as a form of survival strategy.
All our inherent humanity is nothing in the face of that pathology. And perhaps that very absence of our full human capacities, our deeply suppressed emotional intelligence, our empathy, our many other existential capacities that kept humans going for a couple hundred thousand years before the invention of complex social systems that became civilizations, are the secret to our own inevitable demise — inevitable as long as we keep these complex systems going..
Most civilized members of this homo colossus sub species are uneducated in the indigenous skills of survival that have been vastly decimated over the past two hundred years. Apart from what’s provided them by the system, the sub species homo colossus has few survival choices. It’s become a very vulnerable version of homo sapiens, one that’s dependent on a vast complex system now on the verge of global collapse. Protest as they might about the actions of upper management, most of this sub species’ efforts to rebel are going to run into the blackmail of corporate-controlled resources, like the ones people find on their grocery store shelves that will be there for only a few days after the trucks stop traveling the highways. Imagine that.
The question emerges, how are we enabling this process, and will we even do anything about it once the necessity to change is fully and articulately faced? I believe there are things we can do. But it will take some vision and planning. It’s extremely difficult to reverse decades of social complexity succession. I’ve been working on it for years; I’ve made a few suggestions on my web site: Watching Apocalypse. I plan to make a few more. But I’m not hopeful these days.
Andrew Bacevich, ex military, retired with the rank of colonel, thus an officer, and, in my mind, a management elitist by nature, thus someone who long ago bought into the legitimacy of hierarchy, should be someone whose thoughts I would immediately dismiss without much need for fore thought, dismiss as someone with a mental framework, a paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn called it out for us in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that would have him see the world through a lens that I find dangerous and distorted, ultimately authoritarian and pro archic. I would expect his words to follow a deep seated ontology that I’d find predictable and distasteful to my deepest sense of independence and free (from) dom (ination).
But that’s not been the case in his writings that Tom Engelhardt has shared with us on his ever outspoken against empire and militarism site: TomDispatch.com.
Bacevich introduces his own piece (Cow Most Sacred: Why Military Spending Remains Untouchable) with a tale of his visit to an annual meeting of Veterans For Peace in Berkeley, CA, a meeting I myself might have been at had I not left the Bay Area fourteen years ago. In it he expresses a sense of openness and appreciation for democratic processes that I would not expect to find in a management mentality. True, it comes with management words that make me cringe, like “rank and file” that echo those management frameworks that look down upon the hordes the management likes to manage, but still the words struggle to speak outward from that self enclosed Machiavellian box to see the possibilities and the values of freedom and liberty embedded in the outward behavior of the minions he’s observing. This paragraph in particular I found noteworthy, even eloquent:
What particularly impressed me was the ability of rank-and-file VFP members to articulate the structural roots of American militarism and imperialism. They understand that the problem isn’t George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and therefore won’t be solved by Hillary or The Donald). It’s not that we have a war party that keeps a peace party under its boot. No, the problem is bigger and deeper: a fraudulent idea of freedom defined in quantitative material terms; a neoliberal political economy that privileges growth over all other values; a political system in which Big Money’s corruption has become pervasive; and, of course, the behemoth of the national security apparatus, its tentacles reaching into the far quarters of American society — even into the funky precincts of the San Francisco Bay Area. There is no peace party in this country, even if a remnant of Americans is still committed to the possibility of peace.
If any of my weekend confreres have occasion to read this piece on the second go-round, I hope that it will pass muster with them. If not, I know they will let me know in no uncertain terms. Andrew Bacevich
I couldn’t have expressed my own vision and ongoing narrative of the structure of our civilized world and its inevitably liberty-constraining format any better. Of course, my vision only begins with this military format. I cannot speak for Andrew Bacevich, whose own history somewhat parallels mine back into the Vietnam era. His was management, mine was not.
My own big wake up to U.S. militarism and it’s relationship to what many are finally recognizing as “empire” came one morning in mid February, 1967 — I’m fuzzy on the exact date, they were all one big blur of days at the time — while I was lying in my “rack” waiting for that sleep jarring moment intended to awaken us all to another day of duty. Reveille. I hated reveille so much that my mind would pull me from sleep, no matter how sleep deprived — and we consistently were… sleep deprived, like adherents to a cult kept from thinking about what cult leaders want us to do for the cause, especially while at sea on Yankee Station — well before its blast so that I could mentally prepare myself for my emotional response. While I was lying there I was going over my past eight months of thoughts about my circumstances.
Unlike many of my fellow military cult members, the day I stepped down off the last step of that bus that had brought us into a Naval boot camp, what I felt through my feet, and saw taking place around me was not a scene where my ritual of passage to manhood was about to begin, but a replication of what I’d recently read in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and would later read about in his Gulag Archipelago; that is, a prison camp, complete with high razor wire topped chain link fences, uniformed men marching by in frozen faced pain, no doubt from their deeply suppressed personal freedom to express their inner feelings, and everything that the horrors of authoritarian dominance stimulated my inner nature to revile. That was mid May of 1966. It was Cold War, America, and I was about to go help save all of us from Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet Union that was, somehow (out of my pay grade and no doubt security clearance to know the details) extending itself into Vietnam.
I of course had not yet revealed that inner nature entirely to myself, I’d only experienced it in flitting bits and pieces, had read about it from fellow freedom lovers, like Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, Albert Camus, and a few others at that meager point in my exposure to the humanly civilized world. I had as yet met very few who actually expressed my own inner feelings and revulsions to this structure of dominance in the way that I felt them. Thus I wasn’t entirely sure that any such real person existed. The writings I’d indulged in were disembodied, much like my own dreams and imaginings. But the moment was a kind of crude awakening for me, nevertheless, and while everything that was to follow was intended to put those awakened sensations to sleep, in my case they did not. Rather they fed my awakening visions, and so I was lying there, waiting for reveille, reflecting, thinking I suppose you could call it, those visions, not necessarily in chronological order, but more in a kind of constantly sorting three dimensional focusing.
So all that is merely the beginning of a long process of exploration though which I developed my own vision of:
a fraudulent idea of freedom defined in quantitative material terms; a neoliberal political economy that privileges growth over all other values; a political system in which Big Money’s corruption has become pervasive; and, of course, the behemoth of the national security apparatus, its tentacles reaching into the far quarters of American society... – Andrew Bacevich
So, while I was lying there, waiting for reveille, going over the visuals of those eight months of impressions, feeling my frustration, my pain from constantly suppressing my deep need for freedom, I suddenly felt an immense sense relief, like a letting go of all that was troubling me, as I thought, what if we all just threw down our tools of war and walked away, all at once? What if we just left, and left those managers, those few elite officers at that top to do their war thing without us? What would they do? What could they do? And then came reveille. But that moment was like an awakening. And I began a new consciousness, I firmly believe, in that moment. I believe that’s how the closure of a rite of passage happens. And each rite of passage that includes a new consciousness becomes more and more refined.
I don’t know where I’d be without people feeding me all this “news” through email. Silence, I guess, or just listening to meditative music and meditating. I’m thoroughly isolated from the media now (intentionally) and I barely have the interest to turn on the computer most of the time. I don’t need a continuous stream of information, because the facts of the situation have been clear to me for years. In this iteration, the DLC chose its candidate, and there was no alternate Obama option this time around to make it seem like a genuine reality tussle. That’s how Bernie got his “revolution” going. People are starved for some election reality, though there never really was any chance for Bernie. Now the Trump phenomenon… that’s another matter entirely.
A few weeks back. I got a tip for a sci-fi novel from the seventies I’d missed. I wasn’t really into sci-fi then, or ever. But it can have some good metaphorical references to work with. The Matrix seems to last. The 1974 novel was The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton. Compton turns out to have been writing in much the same vein as Phillip K. Dick. Don’t know if his was quite as drug induced; I actually found it to be some half way decent literature. Got into the character’s heads.
Amazing foresight from Compton, though. I can’t remember what clues going around then that might have foretold the very idea of books produced and read through computers. Kindle and other ebook formats would not have occurred to me, even though I was getting the news through writing courses that if I wanted to write fiction, good literature was on the way out, and formula fiction would be the future. Really killed my interest in writing that genre as a potential future when I stepped back and saw what was taking place media-wise. I never did get into television as a kid, so I wasn’t really paying attention. But then I began to, and what I saw was the death of the very environment out of which literature would be produced and shared. So I went a different route with my writing jones. But fiction that would be computer produced and spread was the job Compton imagined Katherine would be doing when she got the bad news about her imminent death.
But the most chilling conception was the televised reality notion, out of which, in a variation of that future, a Donald Trump would create his image and draw his notoriety from a continuous reality-starved public of media addicts. The key to understanding the novel and reality television’s emergence as a phenomenon is in the title, with the word ‘continuous’. You’ll have to read it to get it. Today Trump is probably as real to many who have helped put him on this bizarre path to the White House (can you imagine a nation calling it the Black House?) as their own discontinous lives.
So, as to the title of this blog… Looks like another message board site where I shoot up to appease my writing jones is history for me. On the 23 of July, the lights went out, thus the lines from an old country song now echoing in my head.
They left open the option of writing blog essays, to which people could make comments. Not the same as a message board and the somewhat anarchical freedom that abounds in such atmospheres. But I tried one. I discovered it was to be manually read and would have to be “approved” by management before it would be viewed by the public. Eventually it appeared. A small discussion followed. I wrote a second essay.
They killed my second blog piece. They are now giving me the cold shoulder when I ask why. That’s the same treatment I give others — trollish, rude combatants who I want to ignore. It works. They give up instead of taking over my topic. Appears they now have a formula down for complete control of their site. What does that say about the host? The host is a television and radio political talk show figure. What does it say about the concept of authenticity vs hypocrisy? The host himself has become a reality media creation of sorts. And D.G. Compton’s 1974 novel was a good read for me right about now. RH
I’ve been “training” the people in my small local group of associations to accept my help without the measure and objectification of immediate pay. I say things like, if I need help sometime and you can, it goes around, comes around… It’s been taking awhile but they are getting into it. They offer me things now, food, special foods they grow in their gardens. Yesterday I got three really nice shirts I accepted to replace some fifteen year old aging and tattered ones in my closet. It felt like a sincere gesture.
In my review of history, both the fossil record and recorded civilized history, I’m not at all convinced in any measure of certainty that complex society can exist in any form long term. The period of human experiments with civilized order has been estimated to be about 10,000 years. That’s not long term when put up against the geologic time of the earth and its life sharing biosphere. So when I say long term I’m thinking that.
Since we humans began experimenting with civilized hierarchical orders, those all seem to necessarily include attempts to preserve those order with rules we elevate above our immediate human capacity to make sense of our environment in what were once flexible, adaptive and process-oriented ways. Tribal societies may have been more adaptive in that direction. Hunter gatherers were probably the most adaptive groups since they seem to have lasted as a strategy the longest. That is, I mean adaptive immediately with the group’s innate sense of what needs to be done to survive the ever changing environment we are part of…
Anyway, since we began our ten thousand year experiment with complex hierarchy, those various orders have all followed a pattern of growth to inevitable collapse. If the growth of that order were to take down the biosphere and most of the species in a sixth mass extinction, that pattern may end on its own. This could be the last attempt at such an adaptive strategy. Or as one person astutely notices, repeating the same behavior that doesn’t work in hopes it will is the definition of insanity. Mercifully the insanity eventually ends itself.
My own assessment is that we create with these orders an insurmountable paradox. Or as Joseph Heller termed it, a Catch 22 (Merriam Webster defines it).
The biosphere of the planet is in a constant state of change, and we are part of that change. Civilization itself is an attempt to codify the laws of the human world and make them stable in order to keep the human invented institutions ordered and stable. In the process we seem to lose sight of the original intentions of creating the institutions, that is, the underlying intention to create a means of adapting to the biosphere. We shift our adaptive capacities to our institutions while losing sight of the maladaptiveness those institutions tend to involve as they mechanically continue their designed purposes.
As the orders become less sensitive to change, and the people’s discontent inevitably rises, the orders need to be managed so that the humans will continue to follow the rules and keep everything functioning like a giant machine. In that process, society rigidifies and becomes unable to adapt to the ever changing environment. The logic of our species genius to create adaptive technologies now is called upon to serve the forces of conserving the system. The system then becomes its own maladaptive hubristic order. It becomes a malady. Some humans have become so addicted to the malady they will fight to the death to keep that order and impose it on anyone who disagrees. Expressions of that might be the very institutions of policing becoming aberrations of their own purpose, contradicting what’s considered the human-oriented spirit of the laws.
The emergence of anarchism, then, would be a sign of sorts from the whole group that change is needed… not just wanted for selfish reasons but needed for survival. Maybe anarchistic impulses are a deep expression of our collectively suppressed capacity for mutual aid rising from the subconscious of various minds in a desperate effort to help the group as a whole find ways to survive. Anarchistic thought in that sense emerges in hierarchical orderings in various guises as a kind of existential throwback impulse because a number of us realize we are stuck in a system that is not adaptive, at least for us, on an immediate level.
I’ve lost myself in the rhizome-rooted brambles of anarchist thought a number of times through the years. I often set out with one goal in mind and end up lured down tangled, twisting thoughts to find myself somewhere quite different than my imagined goal. But oddly and synergistically I find I’ve connected in some way that I find fascinating to contemplate in one of those “how did I get here” moments.
Like, I set off down this searched list of peter kropotkin influenced and dropped into a Mises Institute nest circa 2011 where I read The Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin. In it I found oddly striking suggestive correlations to the title of Craig Chalquist’s slide show mentioned in a previous post (outliving our ruling institutions). These are really core anarchistic thoughts that connect so many of those who like to identify as anarchists (and amusingly, in an ever contrarian way, contradict the image of anarchism as an instrument of chaos that propaganda has embedded in our social unconscious) even while they may differ in many specifics.
To read the following, it helps to have in mind where Thomas Hobbes fits into modern thought, and how Hobbes 17th century formulations of the human condition, in what we now think of as an Age of Reason tradition, fits into the creation of the modern state that’s evolved with the rise of industrial civilization:
From The Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin:
Like all good students of that era (and later eras as well), Kropotkin knew his Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had written, 200 years before, in the middle of the 17th century, about the conditions that had existed when human beings lived in what he called the “state of nature,” before coercive governments were established. Hobbes described the principal feature of this period as a “war of all against all” and the life of the average human during this time as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This conception of things seemed to be echoed in the language of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, when Kropotkin was 16 years old, with its talk of how (as George Woodcock summarizes it)
in nature there is never enough for all, and … it is not desirable that it should be, since the most potent force in the evolution of the animal world and of human societies is the struggle for existence within the species which procures the survival of the fittest and thus ensures the progress of the race.
The problem Kropotkin confronted with respect to all this, not long after his appointment to a post in Siberia, is described simply and succinctly in the opening pages of his most famous work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first published in 1902, when he was nearly 60 years old. “I failed to find,” he wrote, “although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life and the main factor of evolution.” What he saw instead was “Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.”
He concluded that
life in societies enables the feeblest animals, the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to resist, or to protect themselves from the most terrible birds and beasts of prey; it permits longevity; it enables the species to rear its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its numbers albeit a very slow birth-rate; it enables the gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. Therefore, while fully admitting that force, swiftness, protective colors, cunningness, and endurance to hunger and cold, which are mentioned by Darwin and Wallace, are so many qualities making the individual or the species the fittest under certain circumstances, we maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay; while those animals which know best how to combine have the greatest chance of survival and of further evolution, although they may be inferior to others in each of the faculties enumerated by Darwin and Wallace, except the intellectual faculty.
As George Woodcock notes, this argument is potentially important to anyone who wants to allege that human society, with all its manifest advantages, can be carried on without the “protection” offered by the state. The argument was designed, Woodcock writes, “to show that anarchist proposals could work because they were based on the constants of social relations among beings of all kinds, human and animal.” It was also designed, of course, to put the quits to Thomas Hobbes’s assertion that life in the state of nature was a war of all against all. Perhaps, if life in the state of nature included mutual aid, then there could indeed be a free society, one in which force and the threat of force played no part.
And then the article tangents off in a not altogether surprisingly confused way into some Ayn Rand free market related cult thinking that justifies embedded versions of survival of the fittest with statements like:
In the 1960s, Barbara Branden famously responded, when asked what would happen to the poor and disabled in a libertarian society, that, “if you want to help [those people], no one will stop you.” Kropotkin envisioned a human society in which more than a few would want to help those who were poor and disabled.
Somehow, I suppose, in a tangled array of thought I care not negotiate ever again, that explains the humanistic outcomes of The Virtue of Selfishness. One of which I am convinced is the modern, privately held, for-the-virtue-of-selfish-profit, transnational corporation.
Should anyone want a break from the constant inundation of media images and a chance to retreat into a contemplative word environment, download your favorite free ebook version of Kropotkin’s most famous work: Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution here, at the Project Gutenberg site.