Two things made this book an absolute winner for me: the impeccable choice of pop cultural touchstones and the way the authors were able to encapsulat...moreTwo things made this book an absolute winner for me: the impeccable choice of pop cultural touchstones and the way the authors were able to encapsulate so much of the flavor of the times in each commentary. This is "Beer Frame" meets À la recherche du temps perdu.(less)
When I first encountered this book on the Waldenbooks new age shelf, I thought that Vedanta was a person, as in "the Gospel according to Matthew," etc...moreWhen I first encountered this book on the Waldenbooks new age shelf, I thought that Vedanta was a person, as in "the Gospel according to Matthew," etc. (This was in 1989 or 1990, when I was high school senior in Decatur, IL; I discovered this book at the same time as the Bhagavad Gita, which at the time was mainly noteworthy because it rhymed with "pita," itself another "foreign" item intruding on my culturally impoverished youth. Sad but true.)
In the subsequent two-plus decades, I spent a lot of time and energy attempting to answer my dad's perennial question, "What do you believe?" I knew I didn't accept my family's fundamentalist Lutheran take on Christianity (and hadn't since the fateful day I brought home that book on human evolution from the public library, only to be told that science was a lie when it contradicted stories in the Bible). I also knew that atheism, at least as I understood and experienced it, was not for me—it seemed too easy an out for me to say, "Oh to hell with the Jesus thing." And so in college I studied science (specifically biology and anthropology) alongside religion, trying to figure it all out. Then I got a Master's degree studying Buddhism and contemplative aspects of other religious traditions, including the Christianity in which I had been reared. I gradually arrived at a (loosely held) worldview in which I affirmed the relevance of Jesus to my own life, just not on terms my parents would, or do, understand. That worldview is one in which Jesus is a yidam, Tibetan for "tutelary deity," a concept akin to the Hindu notion of the iṣṭa-devatā.
So what does all of this rambling have to do with the book in question? Well, after having this book on my shelf for twenty years, and finally getting around to reading it, I found that my current worldview was more or less spelled out in these 126 pages. Perhaps I need not have taken the trip I took if only I had read it way back when, but then, of course, if I had read it 20 years ago, I wouldn't have gotten as much out of it (if anything at all). The decades of searching and pondering were, and are, my path. (less)
I started by saying that one of the most fateful errors of our age is the belief that the problem of production has been solved. This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognize that the modern industrial system, with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance. Even if some readers should refuse to accept all three parts of my argument, I suggest that any one of them suffices to make my case. (21)
There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge, which relies on experiment far more than on understanding. The greatest danger invariably arises from the ruthless application, on a vast scale, of partial knowledge such as we are currently witnessing in the application of nuclear energy, of the new chemistry in agriculture, of transportation technology, and countless other things. (37)
Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something "decreed by Providence for the good of man's body and soul." Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? And if society is sick, how could it fail to be a danger to peace? (38)
The market... represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer not seller is responsible for anything but himself. It would be "uneconomic" for a wealthy seller to reduce his prices to poor customers merely because they are in need, or for a wealthy buyer to pay an extra price merely because the supplier is poor. Equally, it would be "uneconomic" for a buyer to give preference to home-produced goods if imported goods are cheaper. He does not, and is not expected to, accept responsibility for the country's balance of payments. (46)
[T]he task of education [should] be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas and values, of what to do with our lives. There is no doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom. (86)
Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live. Even the greatest ideas of science are nothing more than working hypotheses, useful for purposes of special research but completely inapplicable to the conduct of our lives or the interpretation of the world. If, therefore, a man seeks education because he feels estranged and bewildered, because his life seems to him empty and meaningless, he cannot get what he is seeking by studying any of the natural sciences, i.e. by acquiring "know-how." That study has its own value which I am not inclined to belittle; it tells him a great deal about how things work in nature or in engineering; but it tells him nothing about the meaning of life and can in no way cure his estrangement and secret despair. (92)
The ideas of the fathers in the nineteenth century have been visited on the third and fourth generations living in the second half of the twentieth century. To their originators, these ideas were simply the result of their intellectual processes. In the third and fourth generations, they have become the very tools and instruments through which the world is being experienced and interpreted. Those that bring forth new ideas are seldom ruled by them. But their ideas obtain power over men's lives in the third and fourth generations when they have become a part of that great mass of ideas, including language, which seeps into a person's mind during his "Dark Ages." (95)
The leading ideas of the nineteenth century, which claimed to do away with metaphysics, are themselves a bad, vicious, life-destroying type of metaphysics. We are suffering from them as if from a fatal disease. It is not true that knowledge is sorrow. But poisonous errors bring unlimited sorrow in the third and fourth generation. The errors are not in science but in the philosophy put forward in the name of science. (96–7)
The true problem of living—in politics, economics, education, marriage, etc.—are always problems of overcoming or reconciling opposites. They are divergent problems and have no solution in the ordinary sense of the word. They demand of man not merely the employment of his reasoning powers but the commitment of his whole personality. Naturally, spurious solutions, by way of a clever formula, are always being out forward; but they never work for long, because they invariably neglect one of the two opposites and thus lose the very quality of human life.... To have to grapple with divergent problems tends to be exhausting, worrying, and wearisome. Hence people try to avoid it and to run away from it. (104)
The most powerful ideas of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, have denied or at least obscured the whole concept of "levels of being" and the idea that some things are higher than others. This, of course, has meant the destruction of ethics, which is based on the distinction of good and evil, claiming that good is higher than evil. Again, the sins of the fathers are being visited on the third and fourth generations who now find themselves growing up without moral instruction of any kind. The men who conceived the idea that "morality is bunk" did so with a mind well-stocked with moral ideas. But the minds of the third and fourth generations are no longer well-stocked with such ideas: they are well-stocked with ideas conceived in the nineteenth century, namely, that "morality is bunk," that everything that appears to be "higher" is really nothing but something quite mean and vulgar. The resulting confusion is indescribable. (105)
What is to take the place of the soul- and life-destroying metaphysics inherited from the nineteenth century? The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction. It is not as if we had to invent anything new; at the same time, it is not good enough merely to revert to the old formulations. Our task—and the task of all education—is to understand the present world, the world in which we live and make our choices. (106–7)
The higher animals have an economic value because of their utility; but they have a meta-economic value in themselves. If I have a car, a man-made thing, I might quite legitimately argue that the best way to use it is never to bother about maintenance and simply run it to ruin. I may indeed have calculated that this is the most economical method of use. If the calculation is correct, nobody can criticise me for acting accordingly, for there is nothing about a man-made thing like a car. But if I have an animal&mdashy;be it only a calf or a hen—a living, sensitive creature, am I allowed to treat is as nothing but a utility? Am I allowed to run it to ruin? (113)
We know too much about ecology today to have any excuse for the many abuses that are currently going on in the management of the land, in the management of animals, in food storage, food processing, and in heedless urbanisation. If we permit them, this is not due to poverty, as if we could not afford to stop them; it is due to the fact that, as a society, we have no firm basis of belief in any meta-economic values, and when there is no such belief the economic calculus takes over. This is quite inevitable. How could it be otherwise? Nature, it has been said, abhors a vacuum, and when the available "spiritual space" is not filled by some higher motivation, then it will necessarily be filled by something lower—by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalised in the economic calculus. (123)
As Gandhi said, the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production by the masses. The system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology, presupposed that you are already rich, for a great deal of capital investment is needed to establish one single workplace. The system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands, and supports them with first-class tools. The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that is is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the supertechnology of the rich. (163)
Strange to say, the Sermon on the Mount gives pretty precise instructions on how to construct an outlook that could lead to an Economics of Survival. (166)
It is always possible to create small ultra-modern islands in a pre-industrial society. But such islands will then have to be defended, like fortresses, and provisioned, as it were, by helicopter from far away, or they will be flooded by the surrounding sea. Whatever happens, whether they do well or badly, they produce the "dual economy" of which I have spoken. They cannot be integrated into the surrounding society, and tend to destroy its cohesion. (177)
It is a strange fact that some people say that there are no technological choices. I read an article by a well-known economist from the U.S.A. who asserts that there is only one way of producing any particular commodity: the way of 1971 [i.e., the way of the present]. Had these commodities never been produced before? The basic things of life have been needed and produced since Adam left Paradise. He says that the only machinery that can be procured is the very latest. Now that is a different point and it may well be that the only machinery that can be procured easily is the latest. It is true that at any one time there is only one kind of machinery that tends to dominate the market and this creates the impression as if we had no choice and as if the amount of capital in a society determined the amount of employment it could have. Of course this is absurd. (226)
The idea of intermediate technology does not imply simply a "going back" in history to methods now outdated, although a systematic study of methods employed in the developing countries, say, a hundred years ago could indeed yield highly suggestive results. It is too often assumed that the achievement of western science, pure and applied, lies mainly in the apparatus and machinery that have been developed from it, and that a rejection of the apparatus and machinery would be tantamount to a rejection of science. This is an excessively superficial view. The real achievement lies in the accumulation of precise knowledge, and this knowledge can be applied in a great variety of ways, of which the current application in modern industry is only one. The development of an intermediate technology, therefore, means a genuine forward movement into new territory, where the enormous cost and complication of production methods for the sake of labour saving and job elimination is avoided and technology is made appropriate for labour-surplus societies. (198)
Everything becomes crystal clear after you have reduced realit to one—one only—of its thousand aspects. You know what to do—whatever produces profits; you know what to avoid—whatever reduces them or makes a loss. And there is at the same time a perfect measuring rod for the degree of success or failure. Let no one befog the issue by asking whether aa particular action is conducive to the wealth and well-being of society, whether it leads to moral, aesthetic, or cultural enrichment. Simply find out whether it pays; simply investigate whether there is an alternative that pays better. If there is, choose the alternative. (272–3)
1. In small-scale enterprise, private ownership is natural, fruitful, and just.
2. In a medium-scale enterprise, private ownership is already to a large extent functionally unnecessary. The idea of "property" becomes strained, unfruitful, and unjust. If there is only one owner or a small group of owners, there can be and should be, a voluntary surrender of privilege to the wider group of actual workers.... Such an act of generosity may be unlikely when there is a large number of anonymous shareholders, but legislation could pave the way even then.
3. In a large-scale enterprise, private ownership is a fiction for the purpose of enabling functionless owners to live parasitically on the labour of others. It is not only unjust but also an irrational element which distorts all relationships within the enterprise. (284)
Some inequalities of wealth and income are no doubt "natural" and functionally justifiable, and there are few people who do not spontaneously recognise this. But here again, as in all human affairs, it is a matter of scale. Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not "idle rich," even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from the common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practising greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (298)
In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, will fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification; all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainments renders to the attainment of the highest.
This is the philosophy of materialism, and it is this philosophy—or metaphysic—which is now being challenged by events. There has never been a time, in any society in any part of the world, without its sages and teachers to challenge materialism and plead for a different order of priorities. (313&ndash4)
Everywhere people ask: "What can I actually do?" The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind. (318)
José recommended this book for me back in 1998 or '99, when we were browsing through the titles in the Gregory Village Shopping Center Goodwill in Ple...moreJosé recommended this book for me back in 1998 or '99, when we were browsing through the titles in the Gregory Village Shopping Center Goodwill in Pleasant Hill, CA. He also recommended The Gulag Archipelago, which I didn't take up and read until almost ten years later. I don't remember what I purchased (though I think it was a tattered Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon) but I know it wasn't either of his recommendations.
José's recommendations count though, and so this book was always on my radar. I finally found a trade paperback copy in the late 2000's, which promptly vanished into my fiction stacks, until I read an Archdruid Report post entitled "The Glass Bead Game," at which point I moved the book to the "to read" pile.
So what is it about? I was afraid you would ask that, because it really isn't about much. It is literary fiction, the novel for which Hesse won his Nobel Prize. It is science fiction, in the sense of describing a far future society on a far future Earth, if not in the sense of cowboys-in-space operas, alien invasions, or gritty corporate cyberstuff. It is a hagiography of one Joseph Knecht, Magister Ludi, written, or more correctly, edited, by an anonymous disciple. (less)
How to review this book? Well, suffice it to say it came down to either 5-stars or 1-star, and 5-stars finally seemed more honest an assessment of the book and the ideas therein as really pretty darn profound rather than merely overwritten, pretentious, and verbose. (It should be noted, however, that this book was overwritten, etc., and was precisely the sort of book that made me realize why a Ph.D. studying this sort of stuff was simply not my cup of tea.)
Here's my butchered summary (or maybe my summary is concise, and his presentation butchered; he got paid a lot by the University of California, though, so I'll bet on him):
In the postmodern world, God is silent, if not dead, and theists and atheists alike grapple everyday with the consequences of this world without God. Panikkar explores Buddhism and the claim that it is an atheistic, or at least a nontheistic, religious tradition, and finds space for God in the silence of the Buddha and his unwillingness to affirm or deny metaphysical doctrines. He examines crucial Buddhist concepts like anātman and pratītyasamutpāda and draws inspiration from them for a new middle way between the idolatries of theism and atheism. Rather than get provoked and involved in speculations on God, we should be about the work of losing ourselves in service to others, and thereby in that loss and that silence gain epiphany, as both Christ and Buddha would have us do.
(I am currently reading Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson, a much less sober and rigorous‒and far more funny and readable‒thinker than Panikkar. In that work, Wilson discusses propositions that are "meaningful" and those that are "meaningless," in operational terms. I cannot help but note with a smile that much of the material in the Panikkar book would qualify as "meaningless" in those terms, and I note with irony that that might be one of the main theses Panikkar is trying to get across.)
(I'm also currently reading Ahmed Ali's translation of the Qur'an, which brings to the reading of Panikkar's book its own set of questions, about how the Qur'an as Logos affirms or disputes claims about the silence of God, for example.)
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Panikkar, comparative religion scholar and Catholic theologian, earned three different doctoral degrees, in philosophy, chemistry, and theology. Perhaps that level of scholarship is why this, his attempt to make Buddhist thought understandable to an educated Christian audience, is so densely written and exhaustively footnoted. Those footnotes are also one of the reasons this book is a keeper. Maybe that Ph.D. isn't as dead as I like to think. Or maybe I just feel smarter when I read books like this.
Invocation—the raising of the heart in a plea for true love, the raising of the mind in a quest for salvific knowledge, and the raising of the life of the individual in a cry for real help—is becoming more and more necessary in the contemporary world, and at the same time more and more impossible.
First, it is becoming more and more necessary. We cannot bear up along under the weight of existence. Modern life is becoming ever more precarious... Individuals cannot know all things, or solve all problems, or control all of the factors that mold their life. They can place no confidence in their peers, who are as fragile and fallible as themselves. They cannot rely on society, for society is precisely one of their greatest burdens. They feel the need to ascend higher, to cry for help, to reach out to something above, to trust in a love, or a goodness, or a someone. Invocation, as emergence from oneself in order to trust, or take refuge in, or at least to contact, something or someone superior to ourselves, becomes ever more imperative.
At the same time, such invocation is becoming impossible. The God to whom this invocation is directed, the God at the acme of the hierarchy of beings, appears impotent, and from that moment forward is silent. (xxi)
Surely nothing can tell us what the world is, for neither question, that of being or that of non-being, can be asked with regard to the world. Ontology is not false, it is just that it is caught in an endless circle. Ontology insists that to on corresponds to ho logos. The Enlightened One has seen beyond this. What has he seen? Nothing! Śūnyatā, nirvāṇa. (66)
We are dealing with avyākṛtavastūni—things (literally) inseparable, ineffable, inexpressibl—things "inexplicable," in the etymological sense of being so tightly intertwined as to thwart all unraveling. The principles of identity and noncontradiction, properly speaking, or primario et per se, are logical principles—principles of thought, raised to the status of ontological principles in virtue of the "dogma" of identity, or at least of the adequation, of being and thinking. The Buddha has "seen further." ... If my interpretation is correct, then it seems to me that the intentionality of the avyākṛta does not regard the logic of thought—does not bear upon a softening of the principle of noncontradiction or of the excluded third [middle], but rather points to the imperfection, the limitation, the inability to express the real, intrinsic first of all to the verb "to be" and then to the very concept of being, inasmuch as, ultimately, being itself is not deprived of membership in the kingdom of the impermanent, the changeable, the contingent. There are actually propositions that are inexpressible, owing to the limited grasp of the ontological comprehension available to us. Accordingly, although there is no third alternative between A and not-A, there is between "is" and "is not." (69-70)
Were we to attempt to sketch these main lines in broad strokes, we should speak of a tissue of mythos, logos, and spirit. Humankind cannot live without myth. But neither are human beings fully human until they have developed their logical potential and spiritual capacities as well. Just as the essence of the "primitivism" of an archaic culture lies in its mystical characteristics, so the essence of the "barbarian character" of contemporary Western culture lies not in the material component of a given civilization, but in the supreme power that it confers on the logos. If there is a single concept in which we might capsulize the contribution that the Buddha could make to our times, it is the conviction that the logos cannot be divinized in any of its forms, either ontological or epistemological or cosmic. Mythos and logos can exist only in spirit. But spirit cannot be "manipulated," either by mythos or by logos. (84-5)
If we look carefully, we see the the trust the Buddha asks is not a new acceptance of someone else's experience, but a reliance on our own experience once it has been enlightened. It is not a matter, then, of the renunciation of knowing, on the implicit presupposition that there is something real to know and some real subject to do the knowing. It is a question of recognizing that creatureliness cannot transcend itself, and that consequently nothing in the order of being, nothing that develops in space and time, can be included in the realization of what ultimately matters. And what ultimately matters is the orthopraxis that eliminates contingency—that is, suffering. (90)
The human situation may appear self-sufficient in its reciprocal solidarity, but the fact remains that, shut up within its own limits, it will suffocate. Its very sacrality projects it toward the infinite, toward eternity, and unless it is willing to remain irremediably closed off within the spatio-temporal coordinates that delimit it, it will have to be able to find a mediation with an extrahuman order of salvation. This is the traditional function known by the name of "priesthood." (94)
Without an objective something outside themselves for which to strive, human beings may fall victim not only to the self-centeredness that issues in dishonesty with their neighbor, but to the ennui that flows from the meaninglessness of a contingent life that comes to constitute its own stifling limitations. Human beings must lift their eyes to a horizon that is higher than simply themselves and their own story. What I consider that earmark of the new atheism is rather the emergence in contemporary humankind of a tendency to adopt an ideal that is personal in nature. That is, each individual consciously adopts some particular ideal in order to maintain the very need to believe. (95)
And yet does it really seem wise to break with a tradition, a religious one as it happens, that for centuries, for better or for worse, has furnished a large part of humanity with an effective support? Indeed, have we not begun to see that the drastic solution, tested several times now in the course of history, of discarding religion, does not seem to have yielded very satisfactory results? On the contrary, it seems almost as if the "place" vacated by God has been filled up by... nothing at all—and that this "nothing" has loomed up before an unprepared modern humanity with a force that terrorizes it, threatens to swallow it whole. Only silence has filled the void left by divinity. God is gone now, and the silence seems even more disappointing and incomprehensible than the God who has been wished away. (102)
Here our speculation will have to adopt a culturally and religiously pluralistic outlook if it is to have any hope of finding paths to a solution of the problem before it. The challenge of the present age will be to examine whether it is possible to "de-divinize" Being, and de-ontologize God, without either one suffering any detriment, so to speak. Apart from such a possibility, only one alternative remains: identification or nihilism. (107)
God may be or appear to be no more than a handy, bourgeois solution for so many of the problems of modern human life; but at least God represented a hypothesis that, once accepted, really did solve human problems. Left to themselves, without their Gods and without God, human beings simply "don't make it." They must forge themselves every manner of idol in order to survive. Atheism is powerful when it comes to destroying a determinate conception of God; but it betrays its impotence the moment it pretends to transform itself into a worldview that would replace what it has destroyed. Now the cure is worse than the disease. (126)
To express myself in the simplest way possible, then: persons discover that, in their deepest heart, there is a "bottomless bottom," that "is" what they largely are, and at the same time is identical to what each "other" human can likewise experience—the bottom that constitutes what is deepest in every human being, as anyone who has had this experience can attest—that same depth, moreover, that is lived, perceived, intuited as the unique source of all things, and yet never exhausted in any of them, so to speak. (139)
The Buddha delves to the root of the problem—not via a direct, violent denial of God, not again through some harmonization of the various paths, but with a demonstration of the superfluity of the very question of God or of any ultraterrestrial world. In the Buddha we see the vacuity of any possible response, because of the nullity of the entire question. Yet we are not obliged to renounce the possibility of an outcome in terms of salvation and liberation.... Let God's existence be affirmed or denied as it may: neither "answer" will be of any importance, for both are equally invalid. (150-1)
Faith, though of course comporting an intellectual dimension, is not fundamentally an act of the intellect. It is an act of the whole person. The perfect and universal formula of faith is not "I believe in God," but "I believe," as an expression of total self-bestowal, as an utterance of the abandon with which the answer given in the gospel by the person blind from birth is charged: "I do believe, Lord." Faith is an act of sheer openness. Any closure upon an object wrings it dry. The very presence of God is detrimental to the constitutive openness of faith. Neither the Buddha, nor the Prophet, nor the Christ can remain at the believer's side without representing a dangerous obstacle to that believer's leap of faith. (154)
What matters, then, is not "God," in the classic sense. What matters is only a path, a way that leads in the direction of liberation. Ultimately our lot is in our own hands. We and we alone can deliver ourselves from the suffering that assaults us on every side. The only help available is a reliance on the experience of the Buddha himself and of the monastic community of his followers, in observance of right conduct.... When all is said and done, neither orthodoxy nor orthopoiesis matters. What saves is the refusal to entertain any ideology of philosophy that in some degree would center on God. What is of true value, what carries us beyond this nearer shore of ours is orthopraxis. Now we "arrive" indeed, but without vaulting into the arms of a transcendence that can be manipulated, one that is but the product of our unsatiated desires. The dharma is not infertile, and indeed per se. It suffices to follow it; there is no need to concern oneself with it by reflecting and willing. One need only rely on the Buddha, who has indicated the way, and on the community—that is, on solidarity. (174)
This book was recommended to me a long time ago by Nodozejoze, but I kept putting off reading it because, honestly, labor history always struck me as...moreThis book was recommended to me a long time ago by Nodozejoze, but I kept putting off reading it because, honestly, labor history always struck me as a real snooze. I figured that because work is boring, reading about working and workers must also be boring. Boy, was I wrong. This book has been a page-turner from the first. The stories of the injustices perpetrated against working men, women, and children, usually with the imprimatur of the state and federal governments and the muscle of the police, military, and National Guard, has been eye-opening and enraging. If you are one of those folks who has bought the line that soldiers and police, rather than rebels and dissenters, gave you your freedoms, you might not know what to make of these stories of Guardsmen opening fire on crowds of women and children, of cops shooting unarmed protesters in the back, and of the judiciary knowingly framing and sending innocent men to their deaths, simply because of their political views and opinions.
I also learned much about USAmerican history that was overlooked by my "Advanced Placement" high school history class. For instance, I had no idea that unionized working people in the North saw the Civil War as a fight for the survival of living wages and the dignity of working people. (After all, if chattel slavery had been extended into the USAmerican West, as was the dream of the South, it would have made working conditions for wage slaves even more intolerable than they already were, in the same way that outsourcing USAmerican industry to Mexico, and then Vietnam and China, has driven down the standard of living for working USAmericans.) The same greedhead corruption of partisan politics, mainstream media, and Protestant Christianity that sparked the OWS movement in the 21st century were in place to oppose the working people who sought better working and living conditions in the 19th century. The same mindless epithets of "Anarchist" and "Communist" and "unAmerican" were used as liberally in 1880 as they were in 1980, to describe those who sought another way of doing business (literally).
Labor's Untold History ends in 1955, with an upswing in USAmerican labor in the wake of the Cold War Red Scare and McCarthyism. The authors had high hopes for the future of labor in the U.S. I wonder what they would make of the present, with real wages that haven't gone up in 40 years, the widest gap between rich and poor in 80 years, and the lowest rates of union membership in a half-century. Learning about our shared history as working people might help to turn the tide. (less)
Absolutely brilliant and deserving of the label masterpiece.
The book began slowly, in part because I had to let my brain stretch out to encompass the...moreAbsolutely brilliant and deserving of the label masterpiece.
The book began slowly, in part because I had to let my brain stretch out to encompass the vastness of the language, in terms both of structure and of compass. I fell in love with the long rhythms of the novel that first made themselves known when the Pequod is out to sea. Melville punctuates his episodic narrative with long digressions that painstakingly and fascinatingly detail everything from the history, mythology, and technology of whaling to the backstories and the deepest hearts of the myriad characters; and as the winds drive the Pequod thousands of leagues from one encounter to the next, so to do these expositions move the reader from narrative to narrative.
Two previous reads, and the recommendation of an old friend, lead me to take on Melville's challenge. The first book was Shadow Culture by the late Eugene Taylor, who discussed this novel in its context of the transition of early-19th century American religious fervor into late-19th century modernism and spiritualism. The second was Towing Jehovah, a satiric maritime SF novel that mentioned Moby Dick specifically as an inspiration. (less)
Economists are not, by and large, stupid people. Many of them are extraordinarily talented: the level of mathematical skill displayed by the number-crunching "quants" in today's brokerages and investment banks routinely rivals that in leading university physics departments. Somehow, though, many of these extremely clever people have not managed to apply their intelligence to the take of learning from a sequence of glaring and highly publicized mistakes. This is troubling for any number of reasons, but the reason most relevant just now is that economists play a leading role among those who insist that industrial economies need not trouble themselves about the impact of limitless economic growth on the biosphere and the resource base that supports all our lives. If they turn out to be as wrong about that as so many economists were about the housing bubble, they will have made a fateful leap from risking billions of dollars to risking billions of lives. (15)
The differences between the tertiary economy [i.e., finance] and the primary [i.e., natural resources] and secondary [i.e., production of goods] economies run very deep, and those differences have consequences that are central to our current predicament. In the real world, the supply of tangible goods produced by natural cycles or human labor is limited by factors that may not necessarily respond to changes in demand. If there's only so much water in a river, for example, that's how much water there is; the fact that people want more, if such is the case, does not produce any more water that the hydrologic cycle is already willing to provide. Equally, if a country's labor force, capital plant and resource base are fully engaged in making a certain quantity of secondary goods, producing more requires a good deal more than a decision to do so; the country must increase its labor pool, its capital plant, its access to resources or some combination of these, in order to increase the supply of goods.
Yet the only limit on the production of tertiary goods is that demand for them. (68)
Greer goes on to argue that this difference reveals itself most clearly in the forms of feedback each economy entails. The primary and secondary economies involve negative feedback, which is the essence of Adam Smith's "invisible hand"; when demand increases, prices rise until demand diminishes, at which point prices decline, and so on. Similar homeostatic systems occur throughout the natural world, the "primary economy." Only in the tertiary economy is the opposite case true, with positive feedback in effect. For example, in the mid-2000s, housing was seen as a great investment, i.e., it became part of the tertiary economy, and so prices rose far beyond the logic dictated by supply and demand, until the bubble popped, and prices dropped like a lead balloon, with each decrease in price pushing more people to sell, driving the price down further.
It's not all that controversial to describe financial bubbles in this way, though you can safely bet that during any given bubble, a bumper crop of economists will spring up to insist that the bubble isn't a bubble and that rising prices for whatever the speculation du jour happens to be are perfectly justified by future prospects. On the other hand, it's very controversial just now to suggest that the entire tertiary economy is driven by positive feedback. Still, I suggest that this is a fair assessment of the financial economy of the industrial world, and the only reason that it's controversial is simply that we, our great-grandparents' great-grandparents, and all the generations in between have lived during the upward arc of the mother of all speculative bubbles. (72–3)
If economists took a wider view of the history of their discipline than they generally do, the might have noticed that what most of them consider a fundamental feature of all economies worth studying—the centrality of money—is actually a unique feature of an economic era defined by unprecedented amounts of cheap energy. Since the fossil fuels that made that era possible are being extracted at a pace many times the rate of which new supplies are being discovered, current assumptions about the role of money in society may be in for a series of unexpected revisions. (97)
What this means, ultimately, is that the change from today's industrial economy to the economies of the future can't be accomplished by plugging in some other energy source to replace petroleum or other fossil fuels. Nor can it be done by downscaling existing technologies to fit a sparser energy budget. It requires reconceiving our entire approach to technology, starting with the paired recognitions that the very modest supply of concentrated energy sources we can expect to have after the end of the fossil fuel age will have to be reserved for those tasks that still need to be done and can't be done with any more diffuse source, and that anything that can be done with diffuse energy needs to be done with diffuse energy if it's going to be done at all.
A society running on diffuse energy resources will thus not be able to make use of the same kinds of technology as a society running on concentrated energy resources, and attempts to run most existing technologies of diffuse renewable sources are much more likely to be distractions than useful options. In the transition from today's technology dominated by concentrated energy to tomorrow's technology dominated by diffuse heat, in turn, some of the most basic assumptions of contemporary economic thought—and of contemporary life, for that matter—are due to be thrown out the window. (143)
It should be obvious that whether or not a given technology continues to exist in a time of faltering abundance depends on three economic factors. The first is whether the things done by that technology are necessities or luxuries, and if they are necessities, just how necessary they are; the second is whether the same things, or at least the portion of them that must be done, can be done by another technology at a lower cost in scarce resources; the third is how the benefits gained by keeping the technology supplied with the scare resources it needs measure up to the benefits gained by putting those same resources to other uses. (149)
One useful way to assess the vulnerability of any current technology in the post-abundance world, in fact, is to note the difference between the direct and indirect energy inputs needed to keep it working and the inputs needed for other, potentially competing technologies that can provide some form of the same goods or services. All other factors being equal, a technology that depends on large inputs of energy will be more vulnerable and less economically viable in an age of energy scarcity than a technology that depends on smaller inputs, and the larger the disparity in energy use, the greater the economic difference. In turn, communities, businesses and nations that choose less vulnerable and more economic options will prosper at the expense of those that do not, leading to a generalization of the more economical technology. (161)
For the last few centuries, we have tried replacing [Lewis Mumford's "primal machine," i.e., "community"] with a dizzying assortment of others; instead of subordinating individual desires to collective needs, like every previous society, we have built a surrogate community of machines powered by coal and oil and natural gas to take care, however sporadically, of our collective needs. As those resources deplete, societies used to directing nonhuman energy according to scientific principles will face the challenge of learning once again how to direct human energy according to older and less familiar laws. This can be done in relatively humane ways, or in starkly inhumane ones; what remains to be seen is where along this spectrum the societies of the future will fall. (178)
The residents of any lifeboat community founded today will not only have to come up somehow with the very substantial sums needed to buy the land, build the cohousing units, wind turbines and so on, and plant all that permaculture landscaping; they will also have to earn a living during the long transitional process that leads from the world we inhabit today to the conditions that will pertain at the bottom of the curve of decline. Some awareness of these difficulties may go a long way to explain why, of the great number of lifeboat communities that have been proposed over the last decade or two, the number than have been built can be counted on the fingers of one foot. (190)
What sort of Plan B might work best depends on so many local and personal variables that specifics would be misleading. If you've got a large family with whom you're on good terms, bone up on your home economics skills; ten years from now, when four of your grandkids, their spouses and their children live in one rundown McMansion, having Grandma and Grandpa there to cook meals, tend children, and tend the garden will likely be worth much more than your keep. If you don't have a family or can't stand them, cultivate relationships with younger friends, or get ready to take up a second career that you can continue into advanced old age. No matter what you choose, it's not going to be as much fun as sitting on a lawn chair in a Sun Belt trailer park, but then the future is under no obligation to limit itself to those options we prefer. (231)
It's worth noting that while there's been plenty of talk about the monasteries of the Dark Ages among people who are aware of the impending decline and fall of our civilization, next to none of it has discussed, much less dealt with, the secret behind the success of monasticism: the deliberate acceptance of extreme material poverty. Quite the contrary: all the plans for lifeboat ecovillages I've encountered so far, at least, aim at preserving some semblance of a middle-class lifestyle into the indefinite future. That choice puts these projects in the same category as the lavish villas in which the wealthy inhabitants of Roman Britain hoped to ride out their own trajectory of decline and fall—a category mostly notable for its long history of total failure. (242–3)
"Unapologetically didactic..." Indeed! Thanks to Cory Doctorow's lectures and footnotes, I now know where to look to learn how to do the stuff describ...more"Unapologetically didactic..." Indeed! Thanks to Cory Doctorow's lectures and footnotes, I now know where to look to learn how to do the stuff described in this work of repression and resistance in near-future, all-too-real, dystopian Fortress America. Cool.
I harbor strong doubts about the long-term future of our current technoscience fetishes. That said, while these technologies dominate the near-term, young people need to be encouraged to analyze, to tinker, to explore, to dismantle, to dissect, to synthesize, to rebuild, and to hack; so that they approach the technologies in which they are immersed as they grow up (including the political technologies of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights) in the same way that we all approach written language, i.e. those who read can also write. In other words, they need to program, rather than to be programmed (to steal a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff). To that end, this is definitely something I want high schoolers to read, even if it does encourage "anti-social" behavior like cutting class to play inane Japanese alternate reality games, losing your virginity to the one you love, questioning teachers and principals, and standing up to the Department of Homeland Security.