Friday, August 5, 2011

Crock Pot King

In general I have a hard time being interested in reading the crusty fathers of anarchism,* but I recently attempted to read Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, with the thought that, being a biology book with political implications rather than explicitly political, and being on a topic that hugely interests me, it would be, well, interesting.

*The mothers would be a different matter, if I would ever get around to them...

Not only was it not, it was also startlingly clear (and in retrospect, I should have expected this) that Kropotkin was a, y'know, European nobleman. Is all of his stuff like this? Why do people like him? It was just plain icky to read! I only made it about 75 pages in and called it quits.*

*After reading what I'm about to discuss, I found myself with little stomach for what would have been the next two sections, entitled "Mutual Aid Among Savages" and "Mutual Aid Among the Barbarians,"** which of course contrast with the shared title of the final chapters, "Mutual Aid Among Ourselves."
**No I don't know why barbarians get a definite article and savages don't.

Here's a bit from shortly before page 75:
All that natural selection can do in times of calamities is to spare the individuals endowed with the greatest endurance for privations of all kinds. So it does among the Siberian horses and cattle. They are enduring; they can feed upon the Polar birch in case of need; they resist cold and hunger. But no Siberian horse is capable of carrying half the weight which a European horse carries with ease; no Siberian cow gives half the amount given by a Jersey cow...
So we will note here that the "quality" of the animals under discussion is judged solely on the basis of their utility to humans, and not to the animals themselves. Eating Polar birch and resisting cold and hunger sounds like a pretty good life for a horse in Siberia! But since they can't carry as much as other horses, an ability totally lacking in any purpose for the horse itself, pragmatic or recreational, Kropotkin judges them evolutionarily inferior. I mean, !!?!?

Unfortunately he continues, removing as he does the "sub" from the scientific racism subtext:
...and no natives of uncivilized countries can bear a comparison with Europeans. They may better endure hunger and cold, but their physical force is very far below that of a well-fed European, and their intellectual progress is despairingly slow.
Ha ha ha! Hey, Kropotkin, let's drop you alone in an "uncivilized country" in the cold and see how your wealthy Russian gentleman's style of intellectual progress helps you have a good time. Here also, though he does not state it explicitly, he is still considering the beasts of the field in terms of their use to people like him; for with neither the physical force to perform endless slave labor nor the "intellectual progress" to participate in the mummery of western civ, your average native is just going to go to waste, living a life of their own choosing and maybe even enjoying it, shudder to think.

Then there's this on the next page. For context, he's talked about ants farming aphids before, and he just loves how they've tamed the wilderness they live in! They're almost as good as people!
Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. In the great struggle for life--for the greatest possible fulness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy--natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle--and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants' family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences.
Note please that the aphids are completely left out of this consideration. (I should note before I go on that from what I understand of it, using the word "farming" is misleading in the case of ants and aphids, who seem to have a much more, OH HO!, mutual relationship than that, but within Kropotkin's text he approaches the phenomenon, though he doesn't put it in these terms, as being entirely exploitative.) Yes, the ants have it good, in Kropotkin's telling of it. They keep their stores of aphids around to supply them with all the sugary shit they want! Freed from the labor of gathering food, they get to relax and spend their time developing a life of the mind. They don't compete! They cooperate! Liberté, égalité, fraternité! And (again, in Kropotkin's skewed accounting of the ant/aphid relationship), as with the human bourgeoisie, it appears that it's equality for me and not for thee, and as a matter of fact thee hardly existeth. Kropotkin's interpretation of the ants and the aphids is remarkably similar to your average civilized man's attitude towards all of the labor we, especially since the 1600s or so, "outsource" to slaves and colonies and wage workers and women and immigrants and so on--remarkable perhaps especially in how equally unaware Kropotkin (like your average bourge) seems to be, for all his anarchism and supposed sympathy for the lower orders, of the injustice in both situations.


Justin said...

Do you find it impossible to even talk to most people about anything anymore? I sure do, like when people have discussions about global warming, industrial collapse, and so on and the entire discussion is premised on the idea that all these things are things that we have to preserve; when in fact there continuation is and will be destroying our planet.

The most terrifying prospect that I find myself contemplating is that we will discover some vast reservoir of fossil fuels, or some other energy source to keep things going.

But, I find it impossible to talk to many people about this stuff when their assumptions and biases are completely unexamined.

Like the big political task right now to get the economy moving again, and to get jobs back. My god, I hope not.

Or, in another instance, this comment thread.

What's disheartening is that sites like this are pretty far out in the margins. Its not like this is a comments thread on an article about global warming, or even a nominally politically informed minded blog like Digby.

Justin said...

Oh, you probably figured it, but I take your write up to be an attack on the author's unexamined biases and assumptions. And again, you are picking apart someone who is considered pretty extreme, like maybe 1% of the people would know, and fewer would agree with.

howard said...

Great post, and great comments.

Regarding your question on the difference in the use of the definite article for Barbarians and Savages -- though Kropotkin wrote this while in exile in the UK and so it came out in English, his native language was of course Russian, which has no definite or indefinite articles -- so perhaps he gets a pass on this (I'm not a kropotkinophile, so I don't know how well he'd mastered English or if this book was conceived and maybe even originally written in Russian) .

Ethan said...

howard, thank you! The Russian thing hadn't occurred to me (though I've always loved that Russian doesn't have articles--or the present tense of "to be," which to my mind turns every noun and adjective into a potential verb). Good theory! Still, though, his English in the rest of the book feels pretty immaculately "I'm rich and writing in English at the turn of the century," so I'm not sure that explains it.

Justin, I know exactly what you mean. The Baronette has been taking occasional classes towards an eventual degree (don't ask). She took a history/political one a few semesters back, and her constant frustration in discussions was that most of the rest of the class could start a thought by saying, "Well, as a Democrat/Republican/Liberal/Conservative/Whatever, I think..." and everyone would mostly understand where they were coming from, agree or disagree, whereas to make even the tiniest little point she had to start from first principles every single goddamn time, because her basic assumptions about everything were incompatible with everyone else's.

That comment thread you linked to is...instructive, I'll say. I love the commenter saying "cities...are more efficient and are a prerequisite for civilization." More efficient at what? And since civilization by definition is the lifestyle you get when you have cities, well, duh, prerequisite. I just love that "efficiency" and "civilization" are assumed to be all-around, all-purpose Good Things. I could just as easily say, in a completely perfect parallel (except that mine is more accurate), "nuclear bombs are more efficient and are a prerequisite for nuclear war," but it certainly wouldn't be a good argument for nuclear bombs.

When I see this kind of thing, I try to be patient, and I remember myself in the past. Just about two years ago, I remember having a conversation with my father, sparked by the erection (naughty!) of a wind turbine on the New England Tech campus, about how turbines kill massive quantities of birds, and I said something like, "Well, I would want to know how they compare to other power sources. If they kill less birds than would die from pollution from other power sources, then it's more accurate to say that they save birds." I see now that this is utterly insane, but at the time the obvious objections just completely didn't occur to me--they were invisible. Obviously, I thought (or rather didn't even think), we have to keep producing power at the same rate as we do now, so if wind power is marginally less murderous than coal or nuclear or whatever, then it's good.

I guess what I'm saying is I try to remember that no one is static, and maybe even Mr. Prerequisite for Civilization will figure things out someday. But my god, is it hard to figure out how to talk to people.

JM said...

"Like the big political task right now to get the economy moving again, and to get jobs back. My god, I hope not. "

Why? Not everyone can drop out of society nor do they have the means.

Justin said...

I know, JM. I don't have the means either. To get at this discussion though we are going to have to get at what the following terms mean; economy, moving, jobs.

As currently constituted, the health of our economy is inversely related to the health of our planet. Our oceans are on the verge of extinction. Our climate is destabilized. Hundreds of species go extinct everyday. Our land is a denuded, polluted, empty space. Our rivers are dying. So to get the economy moving is to hasten this systemic collapse. That is my objection. If you do not see this the same way, of course you are going to disagree with me. Or, maybe you do, but you don't see how it matters. Unfortunately, we are close enough to collapse now that we are going to find out how it matters anyway.

Justin said...

More for JM

Whether you agree with this or not, I do, and facts of the matter are what they are. The oceans are dying, the land is being denuded. Life as we know it is ending. That's more important to me than my job. I am homeless and unemployed right now, and I intend on remaining as such for as long as I can, and I intend on causing problems.

JM said...

Hmm. it reminds me a bit of crimethinc:

And if they're referring to the Shining Path when they're talking about Peru,well, let's just say they didn't really care about peasants:

Justin said...

Great article on Crimethinc, very much in alignment with my thoughts/concerns. I don't plan on dumpster diving and so on as an aesthetic choice, I plan on trying to figure out something different to do with my labor and time.

I see no difference between eating out of a dumpster and buying it in the shop. I'd eat second hand food as a way of trimming costs so that you can spend more of your time and energy on something else, and as a way of training yourself not to see food as a bribe. Until you are not eating out of a dumpster, I don't see how you could call it anything other than dumpster diving.

I see what you mean now by dropping out of society as not being a valid choice if this is what it means to drop out of society. What I mean by dropping out is reallocating as much of your energies toward other purposes outside of the system in actively constructive alternatives and destructive attacks on the current order, in whatever context you find yourself in.

For instance, my circumstances currently allow me to take off from the states. But, if that falls apart, or proves unfeasible, I would make a deal with anyone who would take it take shifts working in the real economy for a few months at a time, while the other person works in the household economy and on personal creative endeavors.

Justin said...

Here is what I mean by voluntary poverty, expressed very ably by The Archdruid

My situation is of relative priveledge, I am liquidating my relatively meager savings as an investment into finding some alternative. As they are meager, less than a year's worth of salary on middle class wages, I am going lock stock and barrel into poverty as far as my material needs are concerned. I am not casting away that priveledge on principled grounds, but trying to convert it to a better/less destructive way of life. I could run out of resources before doing so and have to return to priveledge if I am able and build up another resource base to try again, or simply remain in involuntary poverty should I cannot.

JM said...

Actually, my concern is about the fetishization of poverty as seen with crimethinc or even Vandana Shiva:
What about those who are actually suffering from poverty? Should they be encouraged to stay as they are?

Justin said...

What about those who are actually suffering from poverty? Should they be encouraged to stay as they are?

No, I wouldn't encourage anyone to do anything like that. Everyone has their own choices to make, to encourage that would be incredibly arrogant, patronizing, and strikes me as pretty wrong. I reserve the right to be wrong about my ideas, I'll live by them, but I wouldn't ask anyone else to.

JRB said...


I work in the real economy -- and for personal and strategic reasons plan on staying there and writing about the experience for the foreseeable future. But because I think it's important for people working in the real economy to support people who can make more radical statements outside of it, I would like to support you, insofar as you are prepared to deliver such a statement. It seems to me you are, so we should talk about creating a subscriber program to support the kind of things that you might do that the rest of us can't or won't. I think there are probably many of us who would be willing and able to commit modest sums to what you are doing. And, in general, we should think more about working in coordinated ways like this.