Monday, February 23, 2009

On the Essentials of the High Modernist Era and the Current Crisis

I recently picked up The Idol and the Octopus by Norman Mailer in a quaint little used bookstore in Manhattan. He has held some interest for me since discovering that he is a self described Left Conservative. Dylan Hayle's blog by this name uses a great quote from the late Mr. Mailer which sums up most succinctly where radical politics needs to go in our current era, "It may yet take an alchemy of Left and Right to confound the corporate center." But Mailer offers much more than just potent quotables. The Idol and the Octopus reveals his eagle eye criticism of the High Modernist zeitgeist of which he was an essential component. For those readers (crickets...) who may have found my ability to define the high point of 20th century modernism lacking, here is Mailer on the essential look and feel of this era:

Railroad stations in large cities should properly be monumental, heavy with dignity, reminiscent of the past. We learn little from travel, not nearly so much as we need to learn, if everywhere we are assaulted by the faceless surfaces of everything plastic which has been built in America since the war, that new architecture of giant weeds and giant boxes, of children's colors on billboards and jagged electric signs. Like the metastases of cancer cells, the plastic shacks, the motels, the drive-in theatres, the highway restaurants and the gas stations proliferate year by year until they are close to covering the highways of America with a new country which is laid over the old one the way a transparent sheet with new drawings is set upon the original plan. It is an architecture with no root to the past and no suggestion of the future, for one cannot conceive of a modern building growing old (does it turn dingy or will the colors stain?); there is no way to age, it can only cease to function. No doubt these buildings will live for twenty years and then crack in two. They will live like robots, or television sets which go out of order with one whistle of the wind.

The fact that Mailer points out that the New Landscape which has popped up has come after the Second World War is the key to understanding this era. Yes the buildings are cheap, plastic and have no sense of past or future, only an eerie immediatism to them. As we now know, they do become dingy and the colors fade yet they still retain an ahistorical feeling. They lack all ornamentation and when they are left behind in placeless industrial parks like pods dropped from spaceships of modular production we are struck by the naked utility made moot by their emptiness. The antagonism they show for the environment around them has the effect of a spreading cancer infecting everything around it and producing the dreaded Office Rows present in every United State: miles of highway surrounded by these factories of fluorescent mediocrity garnished by an over-ordered landscaping. The feeling is again timeless and placeless and causes one to wonder about the Gnostic celebration of space over time. If space is the place and time is the enemy why does this smack of Purgatory? Mailer elaborates on the cancer allegory in his architectural criticism and roots it in the societal crisis of individuals:

Now note: we sink into cancer after we have gorged on all the medicines which cheated all the diseases we have fled in our life, we sink into cancer when the organs, deadened by chemical rescues manufactured outside the body, became too biologically muddled to dominate their cells. Departing from the function of the separate organs, cancer cells from separate organs grow to look more like one another than the cells they have departed from. So, too, as society bogs into hypocrisies so elaborate they can no longer be traced, then do our buildings, those palpable artifacts of social cells, come to look like one another and cease to function with the mysterious proportion of the past.

Getting back to the point of the first sentence of the previous paragraph, American victory in Dubya Dubya Two was the reason for the postwar economic boom (the beginning of the High Modernist era) just as American involvement in said conflict was the reason the Depression ended. Perhaps like Mailer's quote about the Left and Right joining to destroy the corporate center, we now have libertarians and Marxists alike agreeing that the New Deal failed to end the Depression and, in fact, prolonged it. As Marxist economist David Harvey notes:

It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt’s attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt’s too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push towards a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.

Harvey, like many libertarians, also argues that Obama's current stimulus package will probably have the similar effect of failing to address the current economic crisis and possibly even prolonging it. Now while libertarians may not like Harvey's insistence that it is more spending, not less or any, which is needed to get us out of the morass (and I would agree with them), it should be noted that it was military Keynesianism which ended the depression. The equation was simple, hyperproduction + rationing by the citizenry as a whole + no damage to infrastructure or loss of life on the scale which Europe experienced during war= Depression ended and postwar economic boom. America in the High Modernist era was the epitome of the progress and evolution of capitalism to its highest point. At this point, thanks in no small part to the burgeoning cooperation between State and Capital (largely in the form of the MIC) which would set the stage for our current era of state capitalism, regular working people were able to afford much more and enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before. Advances in technology made it so that basic things like food were available in larger quanities and that even the process of cooking them had been streamlined so the least amount of time and labor was involved, i.e. TV dinners. With this we see the end of the Protestant work ethic and the beginning of the leisure principle which would lead to a consumer identity replacing a class based one and class itself being diluted by the consumer communism afforded by capitalism between the High Modernist era and the post-9/11 era. Why fight the class war when you can get lost in the supermarket? Forget "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise", to quote Mark Sandman "early to bed and early to rise makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife."

Now that the relative wealth and ease of life created by postwar advanced capitalism is being thrown into crisis we see criticism of the cheapness and utility of modern life popping up in mainstream publications and news sources. On the surface they resemble Mailer's prescient observations quoted above but the reality is much different. Mailer was someone who believed in social justice. He was an independent leftist who saw that the modernizing effect of technology which is too often lauded as positive in and of itself has a very negative effect on human nature. On the contrary, the journalists and opinion makers who now deride what was revolutionary and progressive about modern capitalism (an easier life and a higher standard of living) do so as to stay ahead of the curve so they can welcome with open arms the new class war between the People (the majority of the population, those who work for a living) and the Elite (the plutocrats and oligarchs, their enablers and co-conspirators in the government, and their defenders in the MSM and upper academia) and ensure they are on the winning side. These court 'intellectuals' (if we can even dignify them with such a word) will speak of the very real and often underexplained and underestimated economic crisis with the same level of urgency as the entirely fictional environmental crisis, itself a secularized catastrophe fantasy designed to give these postmodern Puritans something to feel morally superior about with their lifestyle politics of Whole Foods activism and urbanite entitlement.

In regards to said economic crisis, here is my entirely serious solution: It has been correctly noted by more than a few people that the Bailout (yes, I think we can start refering to it with caps like the Depression of the 1930s), instead of being doled out to a few members of the Elite, could have been distributed to each American citizen, which of course would make more sense as it is made up of tax dollars taken from the paychecks of working Americans. The exact amount that each American would recieve if evenly distributed can be debated but the I think it can be safely assumed to be well within six figures. This sort of bankruptcy sale social democracy would probably have the effect of actually bankrupting, or at the very least cripling to the point of irrelevancy, the government and those parasitic institutions which were never needed in the first place. With this populist stimulus the natural elite would buy land, firearms, food, vehicles and plenty of luxuries to make the hard times ahead as easy as possible as people got down to the serious business of free association, self determination and establishing a whole new economic system of production, sales and distribution and a whole new social and cultural order. Sure the morons would buy TV's, sneakers and Dane Cook DVDs and probably starve to death before they even attempted to be self sufficient but so be it. The plutocrats and their enablers would be rounded up and summarily executed.

Now while I think that the positive effects of modern capitalism mentioned above are, well, positive, that doesn't mean they don't come at a price. One cannot forget that there is a direct line from there to now that is unbroken, just take the rise of state capitalism as an example. Also, the problem with the rise of the leisure principle is that, well, it became a principle in and of itself rather than a nice side effect of the historical process. Norman Mailer gets it right (for the most part) when he writes:

The crucial characteristic of modern totalitarianism is that it is a moral disease which divorces us from guilt. It came into being as a desire to escape the judgements of the past and our responsibility for past injustice- in that sense it is a defense against eternity, an attempt to destroy that part of eternity which is death, which is punishment or reward. It arose from the excesses of theology, the exploitation of theology, and the oppressions of theology, but in destroying theology, the being of man and his vision may be reduced to a thousand-year apathy, or to extinction itself. The words are abstract, but the meaning by now is I hope not altogether hidden. In our flight from the consequence of our lives, in our flight from adventure, from danger, and from the natural ravages of disease, in our burial of the primitive, it is death the twentieth century is seeking to avoid.

To this I will add a point about leisure and technology. The Puritans lived life through a very materialist and life-hating perspective. They worked from sun up to sun down and allowed very little time for what most people might consider "fun" as they viewed such pleasures as acts of Satan and his emissaries. Idle hands are the Devil's tools. Indeed, the heathen or the independent Marxist will tell you that leisure time is essential for the creation of art and culture. But this perspective is not of the Judeo-Christian mindset which fused with capitalism through the Protestant work ethic and is now bellowing out of those windbags who now tell us that being poor (or poorer) will make us holy. The Romans, on the other hand, existed in a time far predating the supposed technological and ideological progress of the era in which the Purtians lived yet were possesed with a spitituality much greater than those nasty busybodies and were also able to enjoy bathhouses equipped with an elaborate plumbing system. Try explaining that one to their Colonial ancestors who were still heating up the bath water over the fire. Perhaps the present isn't always an improvement over the past. Yes, we are always moving forward in time, but we are moving forward in cycles. Maybe what we really need is a

“re-emergence of archaic social configurations in a new context”. For the societies of the future we need to think in terms of a combination of the advances of techno-science and the return to traditional solutions out of the mists of time. That may be the true nature of post-modernity, as far removed from a nostalgic cult of the past as it is from an idiotic worship of whatever is current. Between the longest memory and the Faustian soul should not be a question of “or” but of “and”. For they do match. To bring together Evola and Marinetti...The Ancients are not to be aligned with the moderns but with the futurists, for...globally the future needs the return to ancestral values and that applies the whole world over.”

1 comment:

rmangum said...

Wonderful post. I think you (and Mailer) get so many things right. One thing that ought to be mentioned is the influence of Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, which helped to produce the stultifying sameness in a country that previously had a wealth of local cultures. Like Mailer said, it overlaid a new America on top of the old.

I think we do need to look at older forms of political and social organization as a model, in a non-luddite way that combines them with modern technology and consciousness (of course, how could it be otherwise, but many will say "no, no, you can't go backward, only onward and upward into the brave new world"). One such form is the medieval free city, as described in Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid", which arose as a combination of the village communes and the guilds. While a highly organized, complex form of society, there was nothing we would recognize as a "state", and (according to Kropotkin, at least) nobody starved in the street as in modern cities. Another form is the classical polis. I think the city-state is the more natural, organic form of political organization, and one day history will look upon the nation-state as an unfortunate aberration. The means by which we can get from here to there is secession, and an excellent book on this is Hans-Hermann Hoppe's "Democracy: the God that Failed".