Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alliances and obfuscations

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, pages 49-50:
Ultimately, this mounting class conflict [in the 13th to 15th centuries] brought about a new alliance between the bourgeoisie and the nobility, without which proletarian revolts may not have been defeated. It is difficult, in fact, to accept the claim, often made by historians, according to which these struggles had no chance of success due to the narrowness of their political horizons and the "confused nature of their demands." In reality, the objectives of the peasants and artisans were quite transparent. They demanded that "every man should have as much as another" (Pirenne 1937: 202) and, in order to achieve this goal, they joined with all those "who had nothing to lose," acting in concert, in different regions, not afraid to confront the well-trained armies of the nobility, despite their lack of military skills.

If they were defeated, it was because all the forces of feudal power--the nobility, the Church, and the bourgeoisie--moved against them, united, despite their traditional divisions, by their fear of proletarian rebellion. Indeed, the image that has been handed down to us, of a bourgeoisie perennially at war with the nobility, and carrying on its banners the call for equality and democracy, is a distortion. By the late Middle Ages, wherever we turn, from Tuscany to England the the Low Countries, we find the bourgeoisie already allied with the nobility in the suppression of the lower classes. For in the peasants and the democratic weavers and cobblers of its cities, the bourgeoisie recognized an enemy far more dangerous than the nobility--one that made it worthwhile for the burghers even to sacrifice their cherished political autonomy. Thus, it was the urban bourgeoisie, after two centuries of struggles waged in order to gain full sovereignty within the walls of its communes, who reinstituted the power of the nobility, by voluntarily submitting to the rule of the Prince, the first step on the road to the absolute state.
[Citation references Henri Pirenne's Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe.]

This passage describes a phenomenon I think most of us are familiar with, but perhaps in a historical context some of us (me, for one) might not have placed it in before. Anyway, it's always useful to be reminded of it. We're always told (with varying levels of directness) that we should point ourselves "upward" in our aspirations and allegiances, and "downward" in our hatred, blaming, and (again with varying levels of directness) our violence. And in some ways, it makes pragmatic sense to go along with this--as Federici points out, if the bourgeoisie hadn't aligned itself with the nobility, there's a very good chance that the lower-class revolutionaries would have been successful--i.e., that there wouldn't be a bourgeoisie anymore.

Of course, this pragmatism is a false one; if the revolutionaries had actually been able to enact a world where "every man [sic] should have as much as another," which they may have been able to with genuine bourgeois assistance (which would have also been, by its nature, anti-bourgeois assistance), I can't help thinking that not just the revolutionaries but everyone, bourgeoisie included, might be living better, fuller lives now. In Federici's account, the bourgeoisie's (and the Church's) alliance with the nobility abetted the creation of the absolute state; what might it do now?

Federici is talking about classes of people, but how do we learn from this and apply those lessons to our behavior as individuals? I don't for a minute fool myself that I, and most people who will read this, don't fall into any reasonable definition of "the bourgeoisie," but as individuals we can behave counter to the pattern of our class. Our actions determine whether we're the bourgeoisie in this case. When push comes to shove, you and me and others like us need to remember that our allegiance should always be to those with less power than us, not those with more, despite what short-term pragmatism might seem to indicate.

The first paragraph, by the way, describes one very powerful technique frequently used to mystify and dismiss opposition to the status quo, which is to call that opposition "muddled" or "narrow-minded." "Those silly peasants think that everyone can live like the King, how confused they are!" "Those feminists are only concerned with problems that affect women, not problems that affect everyone!" Sometimes these accusations can be accurate--for instance, I don't think it would be wrong to say that the bourgeoisie's allegiance to the nobility was and is narrow-minded--but whenever people start slinging these attacks, it's probably going to be useful to step back and really think about it, because they are a very effective way of confusing people into exactly the kind of wrong allegiances I was discussing above. With the two (cartoonish, but no less common for their cartoonishness) examples I gave, a moment's thought reveals the problems, i.e., surely no peasant thinks that everyone can or should live just like the King does, maybe I should try to see what they're actually arguing; obviously, any problem that affects half of the population cannot help but affect the rest--and even if it didn't, it's still a problem for a huge number of people!

(A reminder--I found Federici's book extremely important, so I'm going slowly through the quotes I copied onto my Commonplace blog and discussing each of them one by one. None of these posts is comprehensive in any way, nor is it intended to be--none of them will be comprehensive on the larger topic involved, on the subset of that topic that I choose to discuss, or even on the implications of the particular Federici passage discussed. Obviously. And if you want to see all of the quotes I copied before I discuss them, they're here.)


High Arka said...

As you mentioned Zinn in your earlier Federici post, Zinn's conclusion at the end of People's History was an indirect nudge to the bourgeoisie to ally downward.

(Incidentally, allying downward would involve allying with those being killed and starved, rather than with those upset they only got 1% this year when everyone else got 1.45.

I know, I know.)

The sans culottes turned against the bourgeoisie for much the same reason that, someday, Joe the Plumber may be leading an army to crush the grad. students at Penn. State: misplaced blame. And the bourgeoisie turned on them for the same reason that you express loathing of narrow-minded red staters: it keeps you from complaining as much upward. In place of that, try to join them. We are our brother's keepers. As long as we throw coursebooks at them and critique their backward social habits, we fail to not only move and improve them, but also to recognize and assess our own backward social habits and lack of other worthwhile cultural knowledge.

Richard said...

"for the same reason that you express loathing of narrow-minded red staters"


Ethan said...

High Arka, I think the main reason you irritate me so goddamn much is that you're wrong on so many levels (and before you start slinging your completely pointless logical fallacies at me, when the problem is you you're going to get goddamn ad hominems). As a response to what I've written, your comments here are utterly wrong in that they are not remotely responses to my posts (find me disdain for "red staters," or lack of concern for the people the US wages war on, or a single goddamn positive mention of Hilary Clinton anywhere on this blog, or for that matter a single positive mention of any politician anywhere after about 2008, when my understanding of the world complicated). Instead, they are responses either to what you think I've written, which is where the comments on reading comprehension came in, or they are responses to what you think someone somewhere else has written, in which case--go clutter up their comments sections, not mine.

Meanwhile, even if we disregard that colossal wrongness, you're just woefully wrong about every individual thing you say. Your overarching concepts, your individual points within those concepts, all are just so mind-bogglingly pig-headed that it blows my mind (as, for example, your [possibly unwitting] defense of rape).

The upshot of this is that there is no way in. I can't begin to address what I think is wrong about you, because it's too much. And you just keep at it, over and over again, getting wronger and wronger. And honestly, I don't have any desire to spend a single further second on you.

DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS COMMENT. I'm sick of your nonsense. I'm not banning you, no matter how much you want me to (incidentally, your cute little link on the word "banned" is an excellent example of your deep-field wrongness, as it shows you simultaneously fail to understand banning AND Fahrenheit 451). However, any comment you post from here on out that addresses me as if I were someone else, or expresses some of your viler beliefs, or just irritates me, will be deleted. Not because I'm scared of your truths, or whatever you flatter yourself people's irritated response to you indicates, but just because I don't feel like devoting any more of my energy to your nonsense.

If you end up meriting this--congratulations! You'll have been the first non-spam comment I'll ever have deleted.

antonello said...

one very powerful technique frequently used to mystify and dismiss opposition to the status quo, which is to call that opposition "muddled" or "narrow-minded." "Those silly peasants think that everyone can live like the King, how confused they are!" "Those feminists are only concerned with problems that affect women, not problems that affect everyone!"

Or hearing gay people described as selfish for wanting equality. You're also selfish if you belong to a union. You're obstructive if you adhere to your rights. You're small-minded if you oppose fanaticism. You're an elitist if you oppose bigotry. You're merely confused if you're disgusted by greed. You just aren't looking at the bigger picture.

A common euphemism for people who insist on being treated decently is that they aren't "thinking smart." You've heard the spiel: In today's more challenging economy, the smart individual will strive for valuable learning experiences, however unremunerative for the present time, and won't waste valuable energy insisting on unproductive concepts such as a minimum wage or fixed working hours. 'Workers need to be develop greater flexibility in their expectations,' says Simon Legree, CEO of Taskmasters" etc.

As a trope, its potential is barely tapped. Think of all the uses to which it could be put:

"The defendant, instead of considering everyone's feelings, selfishly persisted in trying to get an acquittal."

Ethan said...

Bless you, antonello, for ignoring the kerfuffle above you.

The "narrow-minded" slander is a remarkably powerful one, as I can attest first-hand, having fallen for it myself many times in the past. I may have objections to the particular forms of equality my fellow queers are fighting for, not to mention the methods by which they carry out that fight, but there is nothing narrow-minded about the impulse to equality.

Your "thinking smart"...! It's a perfect iteration, on a different level, of the false pragmatism I was talking about in the post. Thanks for pointing it out!

As to your closing, you think you're being extreme--but I've seen several people, in several unrelated places, make exactly that argument in the past few days--about Troy Davis.

antonello said...

A melancholy definition of "smarts," is it not? Taking part in one's own degradation. Making choices between infuriating evils. And with each exhausting diminishment, the knowledge that you've been set up for other diminishments. It's the language of the prison guard ("If you're smart, you'll keep your mouth shut and do what you're told") transposed into the blithe, chipper advice of corporate spokespeople, job counselors, therapists, how-to writers and educators. Online news columns are given to such mournful advice in the guise of spunky self-help. Here's one, chosen today from Yahoo News:

The author of those words seems like a decent person. She means to be useful. She never seems to have had it easy; and now she is having it harder. And yet her sensible, good-natured words are unavoidably dispiriting.

"I gained an entirely new perspective having lived through the most recent recession."

What is this perspective? That the current system reeks? Why, no: she has learned to become smarter in her choices. That's one way of putting it. And having been tortured, I imagine, would gain one a sharper perspective on power. This is how the stymied, the beaten-down, the swindled, the victimized have forced themselves to talk so as not to kill themselves. It's like all those maids and waitresses in Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed, working themselves almost to numbness and yet swearing to work themselves even harder. Economic Calvinism. You will know you are one of the damned if you live in wretchedness. You will know you have been saved if you can rise among the prosperous.

"Seeing people living in humble circumstances then and now keeps me focused on productivity. In contrast, during the economic boom I just went to my 40-hour job and took it easy the rest of the time."

She had wanted her free time to be free. The lazy slattern. But now she's learned a valuable lesson: there's no such thing as free time in the land of the free. It's time on loan, to be claimed by your employers, your creditors whenever convenient.

"Now I think before purchasing a new outfit or even buying treats at the grocery store."

Even buying treats. O, merciless gods of the social contract.

I confess to having purchased a few treats over the years. I have, for example, about thirty-five dress shirts. Why I have so many, I don't know. It just makes me feel better to have such a range of colors to select from before I plunge into the workaday hellhole. I suppose this makes me a grasshopper rather than an ant. Or maybe it's knowing that living miserably, or even more miserably, will not ward off any ghastliness if it should come. At least one will have lived a little, in one's own feckless way, before expiring and getting bagged into the dumpster. Speaking of which:

"I'd never go so far as to be a 'freegan' who salvages discarded food in dumpsters, but I don't look down on those who do."

Well, that's very sporting of her. One detects here, all the same, Ethan, one of the themes of your post: that the middle-class almost superstitiously distance themselves from the poor so as not to come down with their contagion.

This, then, is how the recession "changed" her. Did she need to be changed? Was she broken and in need of fixing? Apparently so:

"In the end, the recession has made me a better, more thrifty person."

It's made her better, you see. I know, of course, that this is how people must soothe themselves so as not to go into irrevocable meltdown. Any misfortune, however random or gruesome, must make them somehow better: accidents, diseases, you name it. "He crashed his car? Well, he's very lucky. He could have been killed." No, he wasn't lucky: he was in a farking car crash.

Ethan said...

Interesting find--I'm amazed actually that the mention of freeganism is only distancing, as opposed to revolted. Not that that's actually good, but...

Your last point ("He wasn't lucky") is one I hammer on a lot in real life, particularly in the context of employment, like, "Well, at my last job I didn't get any vacation days, and now I have five, this job is so good!" No, it isn't; it's marginally, marginally less revoltingly exploitative than your last.

antonello said...

Since the article I referred to is on Yahoo News, there is a comments section. I wouldn't recommend reading it, though: it tends to be rampantly toxic. I don't know what it is about Yahoo News that makes it so. Whenever I've read the comments sections there, I'm been tempted to wish that the human race were attached to a plug so that I could pull it. The other day there was a news item about workers collapsing in a warehouse owned by Amazon. The temperature inside had reached 102 degrees. So many fainted that the company kept an ambulance stationed outside. The stricken workers were, nevertheless, given demerits for any work they had failed to do. A doctor at the local hospital was thinking of reporting Amazon to OSHA.

The commenters on the article were the usual stunted gloaters. About half of the remarks, at least so far as I managed to read them, could be summarized as: "No one wants to work hard any more. I had jobs every bit as bad, and I survived. I bet all the socialist types will exploit this and pass more regulations. If you don't accept the conditions of the workplace, that's on you. They were probably just faking it anyway. They'll sue the company and end up with a fortune. They should feel lucky to have a job at all. See where their whiny complaints will get them — the jobs will be probably given away to a bunch of Mexicans." And so on, ad nauseam.

It's not that I think the comments there are representative of our society in general. If I really did, I would stay home, nail up the doors and windows, and wait in horror for the living dead to sniff me out. There's a certain type of person — lone wolf or, not to insult the animal kingdom, lone ghoul — who gathers at such venues. They're drawn to the blood of suffering humanity. An article on, say, Bradley Manning will result in myriad comments of the most absolute foulness. Beyond caricature.

But again, those comments relate to the theme of your post. The comfortable, or at least those who would like to think themselves so, have an instinct to snipe at the poor, the victimized, the unfortunate, as if they were predators. Poverty and misery are catching. Best to keep a good distance. Sprinkle oneself in the holy water of sanctimony. Even the most accidental misfortune is met with contempt. Earthquake victims on the other side of the world, for example: why would anyone sneer? But they do. That's how they live. Look at their homes — just a bunch of flimsy huts. An earthquake will flatten them like a house of cards. Life is cheap to them. What else would you expect?