Saturday, April 25, 2015

Very Superstitious

Probably a quarter century ago, I read an op-editorial piece in the Globe and Mail, penned by a Uganda immigrant to Canada, that I’ve been unable to find anywhere on the net. I cannot recall the man’s name either, unfortunately (it would make the article easier to track down, no doubt). 

But he described his anticipation before coming here that (unlike his home-country) the principles of science and rationality would be the norm in a highly-modern, industrialized society.

Don't press that button!

The migrant was, however, quickly disabused of this notion when, soon after his arrival, he entered the elevator of a tall building, and discovered that the numbers on the buttons skipped from 12 to 14. 

Thinking this was some kind of mistake, he checked other buildings and found that these two, had no thirteenth-storey. 

Asking Canadian friends why this was so, he was told that thirteen is a token of bad luck. 

The Ugandan op-ed writer soon enough learned about many other superstitious practices engaged in by the people of “rational and scientific” Canada (as well as all other Western countries), to avoid ill-fortune: not raising a umbrella indoors; not putting up a calendar before the beginning of the year; or tossing salt behind one’s back should the shaker tip over by accident. 

Every building thirteen storeys or more has a thirteenth level, of course. I myself used to work on the thirteenth-storey of my building (which is, of course, known as the fourteenth floor). 

The actual labelling of the floor as such is, while extremely rare, not unheard of: on a trip to Las Vegas some years ago, I found that our suite was located on a floor labelled “13”. 

But as if to confirm the cursed nature of this number, we were forced to move to another floor when the toilet stopped working. 

The lack of the thirteenth floor is intriguing, though, because although the superstition about 13 is very old, not much more than a century ago, no building was high enough to actually have thirteen floors. 

What’s more, the high-rise building is a by-product of highly rational, engineered knowledge – the sort which generally eschews superstition.

However, high-rise buildings have been constructed not by engineers, but by proletariat and immigrant labour – very skilled labour, often, but otherwise people not imbued with an academic view of reality. 

A lack of education does not, however, does not in itself promote superstition amongst construction-workers (or anyone else). 

It is, rather, that no matter how well-designed a skyscraper, and well-planned its actual construction, contingency always intrudes, in the form of accidental death and injury from workers falling from great heights. 

Even in contemporary times, with all the safety equipment available to the high-rise construction, such fatalities nevertheless remain common enough

Thus it is that, during the construction of a high-rise, the thirteenth-floor remains unnamed, so as not to “tempt fate.” 

Superstitious behaviour is common in other vocations where contingency cannot be avoided. The seafarer’s rites are a recognition that, while man can surf the oceans’ waves, he can no more command them can he can the weather. 

When the latter turns sour, the mightiest ship can be lost. The seasoned crewman adopts a web of conventions and practices that combine the practical and the superstitious, such that the distinction between them is scarcely recognized. 

The sailor, like the high-rise hard-hat, cannot approach his situation with complete rationality, since the risks presented by both vocations are too great. Their method of operating is only partially rational (that is, directed in a serial-logical manner). Method digresses into actions which are not strictly progressive toward an end. The forms of action become important in themselves. 

Athletes are also notably superstitious, and yet their jobs do not involve threats to personal safety (or at least, not to the degree known to high-rise workers or high-seas shipmen). But any game is, by definition, of chance. 

This bed is in Room 13-13.

No matter how well-trained and practised is an athlete, or team, the factors of any game cannot be completely controlled (short of deliberate fixing). Especially in the big leagues, where a sportsman is observed by thousands or millions, and is paid just as much, losing carries low risk of injury except to pride and social standing. 

The pressure to win, and the inability of any athlete to be certain of it, prompts many to adopt superstitious behaviour, as well. 

Empirically, superstitious practices cannot prevent misfortune on a high-rise construction site, on a ship at sea, or on the playing-field. Because these activities are risky (or contingent) to one degree or another, it is statistically inevitable that carrying them out will result in failure and accident, often of a catastrophic nature. Superstition reflects a psychological need to mitigate this inevitability, regardless if it betrays common sense or the strictures of rationality.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

When Rock Became Theatre

A largely overlooked aspect of the counterculture of the 1960s, was its adoption of androgyny in clothing- and hair-styles. Thus, hippie men grew their hair long, in contrast to the prevailing masculine style, while women took to wearing the denim slacks characteristic previously of males. The men, too, started wearing colourful, flowery and flowing clothes, again previously reserved for women. 

Staunch Republican.  True Story.
The androgynous trend became all the more pronounced with the advent of “glam” or “glitter” rock during the early 1970s. Rock music was the soundtrack of the counterculture, but glam-rock is somehow seen as a refutation of the flower-power vibe. 

It is interesting, however, that two of the biggest stars of early ‘70s glitter-rock, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, started their careers as hippie-trippy folk-rock singers. Bowie came to prominence originally with Space Oddity, while Bolan, as the leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, put out albums with titles such as My People Were Fair and Had the Stars in Their Hair…. Within a couple of years though, Bolan went totally glam, shortening the band name to T. Rex and releasing his biggest North American hit, Get It On (Bang a Gong) in 1971. Bowie, meanwhile, transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust, the leader of the Spiders From Mars. 

Glam in fact emerged as a result of the massive popularity of rock music in the early 1970s. After Woodstock, rock acts had graduated from concert halls, auditoria and other smaller venues with just a few hundred or several thousand seats, to sports arenas and stadia with capacities of tens of thousands of people (in seating, and in “general attendance”, the standing-room only areas located directly in front of the stage, on the fields or surfaces usually reserved for pro-sports play). 

Ian Anderson, leader of Jethro Tull, was interviewed for Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love documentary in 1977. He explained the need for theatricality in rock performance, as a result of transfer of rock performance from actual theatres and ballrooms, to these giant venues: 

The audiences have come to expect a better standard of performance, a better quality of lighting, sound and staging. They’ve come to expect a show. Musical content alone isn’t enough. For most people who have been to ten or twenty rock concerts, they necessarily get a little bit bored of seeing tiny figures on the stage, just wearing blue denim gear they bought yesterday from a supermarket. ... The fact is, if you’re going to be play for people a quarter of a mile away at some big gig they can’t see me if I’m dressed like this [in slacks and leather jacket]. I’d just look like a coal-miner or something. You tend to wear clothes which sort of accentuate... I mean I’m involved in physically expressing the music. I wear the clothes that go with that job. (Episode 16: Whatever Gets You Through The Night: Glitter Rock) 

This fusion of rock and theatre to create glam or glitter, was derided as superficial by many at the time (including the late Creem magazine editor and all-around curmudgeon Lester Bangs, who is interviewed at length in the final two episodes of All You Need Is Love). 

Just Like a Woman.

But this projection of the self as a means of communication to masses of people, is very ancient, going back to the classical development of rhetorical techniques, and to the enormous masks worn by actors in the Greek theatre. In the case of glitter-rock, performers compensated, sartorially, for the literal amplification of the music into a mass artform (through the development of sound systems which permitted live music to be heard from afar, with much improved fidelity from what was the case just a few years before). 

The engineered projection of certain human faculties (that is, the voice and hands), required the “glittering” projection of the rest of the body, through exaggerated and even luminescent outfits. In a different sense, too, rock performers had to become actors in their own right. Elvis Presley, long parodied for his white, diamond-encrusted jumpsuits, was unfortunate to have died so early, and in 1977 as well. 

His stage-attire, so typical for its time, thereby remains for most the last memory of him as a performer — becoming comically outdated just a few years later. Almost all bands, whether rock or not, adopted this flashy style, as well as increased choreography and stage-effects generally — alongside lighting effects, there came lasers, pyrotechnics and machinery, too: Yes, touring in 1979, performed on a revolving stage. Led Zeppelin, casually dressed in beads, pullovers and associated hippie styles in their early years, embarked on their 1973 (when the concert-film the Song Remains the Same was filmed) tour with custom-made flashy duds. 

Bowie’s Ziggy persona was succeeded by others — as “David Bowie” was himself a role performed by plain young David Jones. Another Briton who cut his teeth in the London music scene in the late 1960s, Reginald Dwight, also reached widespread fame in the U.S. in 1972 under an assumed name. Dwight took as his stage-surname the first name of his former bandleader, Long John Baldry, while the first name came from Elton Dean, saxophonist for Baldry’s group. 

Not inhabiting personae with the earnestness or consistency of David Bowie, Elton John was in his distinct way just as flashy and theatrical. In a parody of his own image, John appeared as the Pinball Wizard in the 1975 film adaptation of the Who’s “rock opera” Tommy (directed by Ken Russell, it remains the most blatant attempt at portraying glam in the cinema), with platform heels several feet high. 

In 1973, Michael Walker writes, John appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, a concert “introduced by Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat fame, in which the lids of four grand pianos are opened to disgorge flocks of homing pigeons as John walks onstage wearing giant spectacles that spell out his name in lights...” (Michael Walker, What You Want Is In the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born, Spiegel and Grau, 2013, p. 186) 

The Alice Cooper tours of ‘72 and the next year, were wildly successful but marked the end the original band of that name. In 1973, the group and its management pulled out all the stops, and created a grand stage that cost several hundred thousand dollars: “the Warner Bros. prop department contributed a convincing gallows for the show’s climax.” A band member dressed in priestly attire, read last rites to Alice Cooper, while the guitarist “marched Alice up the stairs, looped a noose around his neck) and pulled a lever. Piano wires attached to Alice’s costume broke his fall) but the effect was convincing enough...” (What You Want Is In the Limo, p. 84) 

Walker quotes Vincent Furnier, the singer who became Alice Cooper: “We were writing to a character that we had invented, almost like writing a play. There was a master plan with [record producer] Bob Ezrin, Shep [Gordon, Alice’s manager] and I about who Alice was, what he would and wouldn't say. And then I was gonna play that guy.” (What You Want Is In the Limo, p. 85) 

It was not only rock critics such as Bangs were derided the “decadence” of glamour-rock. The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock'n'Roll (title-track to their 1974 LP) lampooned the whole trend. In the song, Mick Jagger asks the audience “If I could stick a knife in my heart/Suicide right on stage…”. 

No Stagecraft Here.

According to the lyrics, he and the Stones’ music is “only rock'n'roll”, but obviously that isn't true either. Jagger was and remains the consummate showman. Far from lacking stage-effects, the Rolling Stones’ stadium concerts were full of theatrical bombast. On the 1989 Steal Wheelchairs tour – years after the glitter-rock trend came to its supposed end – the song Honky Tonk Women, was climaxed by the sudden appearance of an inflatable
doll in the shape of semi-nude flouncy women. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spying and Lying in the Global Village

War is a social and cultural form, the content of which is always the enemy. 

This information-content is conveyed through both the private and public domains. 

Publicly, the enemy is the subject of propaganda. When not conveyed in outright lies, propaganda aims to conceal the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the enemy, in order to galvanize public opinion against them.

The private realm of the enemy as the content of war, is found in espionage

“Spy” comes from the same root as “spectator”, and the whole point of spying during (or in preparation for) war, is to acquire information-content that is considered so crucial, so as to be more decisive than the most lopsided battlefield victory. 

Generally, this requires the spy to play a role, his quarry becoming, unawares, part of the fiction. Espionage is intended to reveal the private functions of an opponent state, just as war seeks to make the private property of the enemy - the territory which makes it a “state” - into one’s own. 

This reality is made most evident with industrial espionage, when a firm uses spies to steal trade secrets and information from a competitor. 

As this crucial transmission of data must itself remain secret, in order for the “drama” to proceed as per the plot, espionage makes the private sphere of the public (the state) part of an opponent “house.” 

But the story is never that simple. In anticipation of being spied upon, proprietors of one state or private firm, at odds or at war with another, will create their own fiction as a means of misleading and deceiving the enemy. 

The double-agent, in this play, creates a drama in which his own paymasters, and not the enemy, become the unwitting performers. 

The narrative of espionage produces content that is always uncertain, incomplete and unreliable. 

Espionage, as one of the arts of war, provides an interesting counterpoint to propaganda. The latter is by definition, public, and aims to fictionalize the nature of the enemy.

Spying must be private, both in its conduct, and in knowledge it produces. But it is determined to clarify the true nature of the enemy. 

Of course, spying by the modern state isn't restricted to foreign enemies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and other countries engaged in widespread internal spying. 

It is estimated that more than half of the population of the former (East) German Democratic Republic, were informers for the Stasi secret police. 

In Western democracies during the same period, governments also spied on their citizens. 

According to historian Alex Hortis, the longtime director of Federal Bureau of Investigation in the U.S., John Edgar Hoover

...turned the FBI into more of an internal security ministry than a law enforcement agency. He poured resources into counterintelligence indiscriminately, and he dangerously blurred the line between actual enemies of the state and political dissidents. These remained the FBI's top targets through the 1950s, even after the CPUSA had been decimated.48 Hoover had FBI agents assembling dossiers on teachers. "The bureau was sending raw and confidential 'file material on the suspected Communist activities of teachers to local school boards throughout the country:' said Attorney General Herbert Brownell, who stopped the practice.  Hoover's tunnel vision came at a cost to other FBI functions. Even after anti-communists like Robert F. Kennedy and Senator John McClellan had expanded their attention to organized crime and racketeering in the 1950s, Hoover continued to obsess about the remnants of the CPUSA. As late as 1959, the FBI's New York field office had only 10 agents assigned to organized crime compared to over 140 agents pursuing a dwindling population of Communists. (C. Alexander Hortis, The Mob and the City, Prometheus Books, 2014, p. 217)

In recent years, it has become public knowledge that the U.S. National Security Agency – and similar organizations in other Western countries, such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service have been massively spying on the email and other Internet communications of the citizenry. 

The American Edward Snowden blew the whistle on these massive invasions of the privacy of individual practically all citizens, the vast majority of whom couldn't be guilty of any terrorism related offences. 

In essence, intelligence services in the Occident have come to view the citizens whom they are supposed to be serving, as the enemy (at least potentially). The private lives of everyone has become the content of today’s information/intelligence.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Terry Fox, the Secular Flagellant

Every Canadian knows the story of Terry Fox, the young British-Columbian who, after losing his right leg to bone cancer, determined that he would ran all the across the country on an artificial leg, to raise funds to fight the disease.

Terrance Stanley Fox (1958-1981)

Fox commenced his Marathon of Hope on April 12, 1980, thirty-five years ago, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, intended to reach his home on the west coast before the end of the year. 

But just five months later, he was forced to abandon his mission at Thunder Bay, Ontario, as cancer had spread to his lungs; Fox succumbed to the disease, aged 22, in June 1981. 

Originally intending to raise $1 million for anti-cancer research, by the time Fox reached Toronto in July, his new goal was $25 million – one dollar for every Canadian alive at the time. 

In fact, well over half a billion dollars has now been raised to fight cancer since the Marathon of Hope; and survival rates for the osteo-sarcoma that claimed Fox’s leg, and his life, have increased dramatically. 

The pain that Fox endured while running each day on his artificial limb must have been incredible. 

It is a large part of the reason why Fox has been so widely admired by Canadians – hundreds of schools, buildings, bridges and other landmarks have been named for him. A bronze effigy of Fox is situated not far from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. 

Fox’s dedication was also incomprehensible to the vast majority people, who are so adverse to pain and discomfort. 

Terry Fox in fact revived a tradition that had been dormant in the Occident for many centuries: self-flagellation.  


Originating in the Middle Ages, Flagellants were a heretical sect that gained force especially following the “Black Death” or bubonic plague in the fourteenth century. 

Apparently, Flagellants were certain that sinful attention to the needs of the body was somehow responsible for the viral outbreak, which killed as much as one-third of the European population before it came to an end. 

They would go on pilgrimage during holy festivals, injuring their flesh with whips as they made their way to the shrines of key saints. 

It was an extreme manifestation of the traditional Christian embarrassment over – and renunciation of – the human body as the prison-house of the soul. 

But as the age of plagues gradually came to an end, so too did the Flagellantist movement – at least in the modern West. Flagellants are not uncommon elsewhere, as in the Philippines, or in traditional Catholic communities in Mediterranean Europe (it is also witnessed among some followers of Shia Islam).

Cancer symptoms were recorded going back to the earliest civilized times. The term itself derives from its physiological resemblance to a crab (which in Latin was cancer, karkinos in Classical Greek, hence the term “carcinoma”). This is the reason why it shares the name with an astrological sign represented by a crab. 

Illustration of cancer cells.

During the twentieth century, however, cancer seemed to become its own plague.   It was not nearly as lethal as the viral diseases that killed so many during the later Middle Ages. But striking people down, often in the prime of their lives, cancer became the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. (after heart disease). 

Cancer deaths are often caused by environmental and lifestyle factors – the main cause of carcinoma to the lungs is tobacco-smoking. 

Yet many forms of cancer strike those who do not smoke, or have not been exposed to harmful toxins in the environment. 

This was apparently the case with Terry Fox, who did not smoke or drink, and was a champion athlete before his cancer diagnosis. 

Genetic predisposition is often behind apparently healthy people being afflicted by cancer. But this was poorly understood during Fox’s lifetime, and so malignant cell-growth back then especially, seemed as unpredictable and frightening as did the contraction of bubonic plague and other diseases during medieval times. 

The twentieth-century cancer plague did not inspire a mass outbreak of self-flagellation, of course (though torturing one's body was also relatively uncommon even during the Middle Ages) 

I would suggest, however, that Terry Fox’s mission to run across Canada was carried out (no doubt unconsciously) on the premises of Flagellantism. 

Rather than punishing his body with a lash or whip, Fox did so using his artificial limb. It was the means by which he was able to run (or jog) in the first place. 

But arguably, too, he was lashing back at his body for betraying him: it not only took away Fox’s identity as a star athlete; he was forced, after the amputation of his leg, to re-learn how to move around in a basic fashion. 

Of all maladies, cancer seems the most evil: it not only overwhelms and destroys the cellular basis for human life – all life in fact. Its medical treatment, either through chemical or radiological means, causes its own misery

And, in Terry Fox’s case, as in many others, there is the maiming caused by the amputation of one or more limbs, or other parts of the body

So, in addition to Fox’s self-infliction of pain through running a daily marathon on an artificial limb, he followed the Flagellant’s path by going on a long-distance pilgrimage: all the way across Canada (or so he intended), with the goal of inducing others to give to the cause of eradicating a modern scourge: cancer.

None of this is intended to take anything away from Terry Fox’s effort, nor yet with what he achieved in raising so much money to find a cure for cancer. It does, I would suggest, give us a better understanding of his motivations, and of the cultural context in which he ran his Marathon of Hope.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bond... Sir James Bond

The 24th “official” James Bond film, Spectre, is to be released theatrically later this year (two other Bond films – one of which starred Sean Connery himself – were produced other than by the Broccoli family). 

Completely gratuitouis.

Francois Truffaut, the late French film director (who is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), expressed his derision at the Bond series.  A few years before he died in 1984, Truffaut claimed that up to the very first Bond film in 1962, "...the role of the cinema had been by and large to tell a story in the hope the audience would believe it... For the first time throughout the world mass audiences were exposed to what amounts as a degradation of the art of cinema, a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor the romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up."

However, the character of James Bond is a “spy” or “secret agent” in name only. The role he actually played was that of a lancer, a modern knight-errant. 

That is to say, the Bond stories are not based on the actions of the real mounted warriors of the Middle Ages. 

James Bond instead takes its real inspiration from the medieval romances that came to be written about real knights.

(Interestingly, the word "knight" itself comes from a Germanic term meaning "servant").  

Bond is sent on missions for Her Majesty’s Secret Service — exotic outlands in search of villains who, due to sci-fi technology, have the powers of a dragon or some mythical creature from medieval legend. 

Bond in his travels encounters myriad henchmen and, inevitably, falls captive to one or more of them, in order to be delivered to the Dark Knight in his lair. 

Knightsh of the Roundtable.

These sequences have been often lampooned in popular culture: instead of dispatching the spy-errant quickly and cleanly with a bullet to the head, the chief villain always chooses to murder James Bond with the longest, most drawn-out method possible.  
However, this method of execution also gives Bond the opportunity to escape death again and again. What sense does it thus make? In the real world, none. 

But these scenes are a throwback to the torturous ways of execution used by medieval authorities, which were always threatened against the hero in the old Romances, and from which the latter always managed to escape. 

Wikipedia notes, “The climax of most Bond films is the final confrontation with the supervillain and his henchmen, sometimes an entire army of cohorts, often in his hard to reach lair. While the novels typically climax with a terrible ordeal for Bond — usually a heinous torture, which he survives to then confront the villain for the last time, the films have tended to tone down the violence/sadism of the last act, preserving the inventively gruesome fate for the villain and leaving Bond conspicuously intact.” 

James Bond — agent 007 — has a “licence to kill.” But remarkably, in spite of the character’s reliance on high-tech gadgets and weaponry, there is one weapon that Bond rarely makes use of: firearms. 

This is in spite of the fact that each and every James Bond film has been introduced with the “gun barrel sequence”, when, as described by Wikipedia, the character “is viewed by the audience through the barrel of a gun trained on him by an unknown assailant. Bond wheels around and shoots directly at the gun/viewer, followed by the assassin's blood spilling down the barrel/screen.” 

In some of the movies in the Bond series, it may be the only time that the main character is witnessed firing a gun of any kind. Usually, struggles between himself and the villain’s henchmen are fought hand-to-hand, or even (tellingly) with edge weapons: knifes, swords, and so on. 

Such fight sequences harken back to the medieval Romances, as well, as does another inevitable facet of the Bond story — his wooing and bedding of the various ladies-in-waiting he encounters in his travels. 

The black lord’s lair may be a compound on a deserted island (as in the first film, Dr. No, and in fact, in a later film, too, the Man With the Golden Gun, from 1974), or indeed underwater (as in the Spy Who Loved Me, from 1977), or even outer space (Moonraker, two years after that), but it is always just the substitute for a castle-fortress. 

Even the sci-fi aspect of the Bond series, harkens back medieval-Romantic themes. The master-technician (code-named “Q”), is presented as a grizzled old Merlin, always ready to demonstrate the magical powers of the latest hardware to a bemused 007. 

No doubt, Ian Fleming, the ex-spy who wrote the original Bond novels, along with the Bond filmmakers were unaware of their use of medieval-romantic tropes in this fashion. 

The first Bond film premiered in the second year of the Kennedy presidency. Although the term “Camelot” was never used before the assassination, John and Jacqueline Kennedy were always regarded in blue-blood terms: the president’s Secret-Service code-name was Lancer, for example. 

Although Kennedy was scarcely the athletic paragon of his public image, he seemed a man quite like James Bond; he is probably the only president that anyone could imagine as a secret agent. Of course, his assassination has been subject to conspiracy narrative of a kind very like that found in spy novels. 

The next 007?  Well why not?

The Bond series itself is now in its second-generation: the current actor, Daniel Craig, is the first of seven to have been born following the premiere of the first Bond film. It has evolved from a “spoof” into something like a drama-adventure. Craig’s portrayal is, as well, “straight”, without the smirks and winks of the Roger Moore years. 

This was the trend as well even with the previous actor to play Bond, Irishman Pierce Brosnan. From the first film, the opening credits of Bond movies have consisted of a fantasy sequence, usually related in some way to the theme of the picture. 

Invariably, too, this would include naked or very scantily-clad women in silhouette, who are (for example) pointing, firing or being fired from the barrels of guns (as in Man with the Golden Gun), or swimming amongst octopuses, which are also in silhouette (as in Octopussy), or floating through outer space on a star background (Moonraker), and so on. 

Again, these opening sequences are always preceded by a short intro, during which James Bond would find himself in deadly peril, only to undertake some miraculous escape, to finish off or elude his opponent in turn. 

In one of the Brosnan pictures though, James Bond finds himself confronted by enemies as usual in the intro, a situation from which he does not escape. 

The opening credits then show a naked and shackled Bond being tortured and mistreated by his captors, the Communist Chinese, employing the same sorts of effects that were used in the silhouette go-go dancer sequences of past Bond adventures. But at the same time, this Bond film featured Brosnan sneaking up to the black knight’s fortress by means of an invisible car.

It seemed that, with the ascension of Craig to the role, the Bond franchise was leaving behind its medieval roots.  But increasingly with each entry, the Craig Bond is going back to the source. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Socialism, The Great Engine of Modernity

Dialectical materialism theorizes that capitalism is merely the historical bridge that must be crossed to get from feudalism to socialism. The course of modern history has shown instead that socialism has been a key initial agent of modernization, preparing pre-mercantile, subsistence cultures for participation in the capitalist system. 

Contrary to Marxist theory, Communists reached power first, and almost always thereafter, in backward economies. For the same reasons identified by Marx in regard to capitalism, command-socialism was a “progressive” force, in that it moved millions, hundreds of millions really, from what the Communist Manifesto called “rural idiocy”, into a modern mode of life.


The only really “bourgeois” country that was succeeded by a Marxist regime was Czechoslovakia. But in 1948, the Czechs and Slovaks had just endured a decade of military occupation. They had formed an independent republic for less than two decades prior to 1938 (when the French and British essentially handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis). Until 1919, the Czech/Slovak lands had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for many centuries. Even then, the Czech-Slovaks most fulsomely embraced liberal freedoms when, during the famed “Prague spring” of 1968, Communist social controls were lifted temporarily. 

The leading powers of the Communist world, were established in countries that were plainly backward in material development, when compared to the Occident: starting with the Russian empire in 1917 (the last place, Marx maintained, where proletarian revolution would take place), then in China just over thirty years later. 

Yet the Bolsheviks were in the vanguard of a movement which liberated nearly half of humanity from the feudal yoke, introducing a form government that was, simply for its thoroughgoing administration of the populace, also wholly modern in conception and implementation. 

Economically, command-socialism suffered from similar dysfunctions in Asia, as occurred in eastern and central Europe: that is, chronic shortages of even staple goods, and disservice in regard to the provision of “free” amenities. Communist states suppressed the political and human rights of the populace, and they were also unable to provide even a better standard of life, or social security, than what existed in the advanced capitalist societies. 


Communist countries were so dismal at best, that they had to turn themselves into literal prison camps — the most flagrant example of which being the concrete wall(s) which separated East and West Berlin in Germany, as well as Germany itself, between the democratic and Communist halves. No surprise, Communism collapsed in eastern Europe directly after Hungary abolished most exit restrictions in 1989, and residents of other Communist states immediately flooded into the country looking to go west, fleeing the massive camps that held them for four decades and more. 

While Communist countries failed to build the “workers’ paradise”, nor yet even to forge an truly internationalist opposition to capitalism, they were successful in so far as they destroyed pre-modernity, thus preparing the way for capitalist society. The process by which societies have shifted from agricultural, feudalistic (broadly understood) cultures, to highly industrialized, cash-based civilizations, is controversial and poorly understood. 

It is conceived generally as a mere process of mechanization, wherein technological invention is merely put into operation as it comes into being. But far before mechanization can be realized, anterior developments must take place. In Britain, this involved the centralization of royal authority under such enlightened despots as Henry the Eighth, and what was in effect the self-abolition of feudalism by the nobility and lesser gentle classes, who during the seventeenth century began to enclose their holdings for cash crop purposes. 

This not only excluded millions of peasants from their traditional holdings, it vastly increased agricultural productivity, providing the surpluses to guard against famine, and to feed the landless proletariat that poured into the towns and villages that would, eventually, provide the workforce for the factory system

The feudal system was more tenacious in continental Europe, but the French Revolution, and the succeeding Napoleonic empire, imposed modern structures upon not only France, but much of the rest of the continent, as well (in spite of Napoleon’s partial reconciliation to the ancien regime). 

After 1815, the old regime attempted to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and did succeed in this for a time. But following the revolutions in 1848, royal states recognized that modern processes could proceed with their connivance. Some of the ancien powers — such as Imperial Prussia — effectively corralled modern methods and technology for their own aggrandizement. 

During France’s post-1848 relapse into royal imperialism — in the person of Buonaparte nephew Napoleon III — modernization also continued apace (to the degree that, following the final defeat of Bonapartism by Prussia in 1870, the country was also finally safe for liberal capitalism). 

The easterly Slavs — nations that were least touched by the earlier Revolutionary and Napoleonic imperialism — stubbornly maintained their backwardness. In the early eighteenth century, Czar Peter the Great had attempted to force his empire into modernity, to limited success. A century later, Russia was the only continental great-power to successfully resist Napoleonic invasion. 

Some Russian intellectuals maintained the cause of Enlightenment, but most Slavic nations were entrapped somewhat by their use of Cyrillic script. As during the Middle Ages with Latin, the Cyrillic alphabet was held as a near monopoly by the Orthodox Church of Russia and its branches. The rational ideology which had permeated the Latin script since the scientific and cultural Enlightenment, was far less prevalent in Slavic texts.  

Naturally, then, the most radical of the Enlightened (Karl Marx and the other theoretical socialists), would find a ready audience among Russian and other Slavic intellectuals. Marxism, as a universalist, abstract, deductive system, wasn’t defective in the manner of Whigism and more moderate sorts of Enlightened philosophy, for its lack of parochialism and particularity to Western Europe. 

Lenin, Trotsky and many other Slavic (and essentially bourgeois) intellectuals looked to Marxism as method of imposing ultra-modernism on their own backward countries. Marxist radicals and revolutionaries consisted of the lion’s part of the intellectual class in the east, and far east. But these were nevertheless minuscule in number compared to a vast population of rural, often illiterate peasants. In pre-Bolshevik Russia, as in pre-Mao China, the proletariat were scarcely more numerous than the intellectuals. 

Only when the post-Napoleonic balance-of-power system culminated in the stalemate of Great War, did the revolutionists have their chance. As the only party organized and ruthless enough to take control after World War had laid waste to the ancien regime once and for good (at least until fascism, a socialist heresy, came along), the Bolsheviks quickly established modern institutions in their backward realm: a “national” army, comprehensive and compulsory public schooling, a uniform system of penal law, alongside the general bureaucratization of society. 

The most ambitious and successful project undertaken by the Russian Communists, was agricultural collectivization and intensive development of industrial capital. This is the pattern of industrialization and modernization followed in turn, by the countries of eastern Europe. 

East-Asian Communist regimes did not attempt the rapid industrialization as pursued by their comrades to the west. Instead, Asian command-socialism — nicknamed Maoism after the chairman of the Chinese Communist party — directed its efforts toward the total collectivization of agricultural production (infamously, too, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge movement sought to bring about agrarian communism by forcibly emptying the country’s towns and cities). 

In either case, the effect was the similar to the enclosure movement in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: breaking the spell of tightly-knit rural, hierarchical communities, creating a largely deracinated population ready for integration into a larger “imagined community” (which wasn’t the international proletarian movement, but that essentially modern polity, the nation-state). 

Communist states were during the Cold War contrasted with liberal-democracies, for not being governed “according to the rule of law.” This is where rulers must act only with respect to written statute, and those accused by the state of breaking the law, are accorded due process (essentially to mean, in turn, to not face punishment without being convicted). This is hardly a modern concept. There was, of course, the intricate system of Roman law in ancient times, and the succeeding Canon law of the Roman church. Islamic law, too, has developed an impressive jurisprudence down the centuries. Law codes are, indeed, for rulers the literal legitimization of their superiority, going back at least to the tablets of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. 

By establishing a particular regime as an instrument of social and public order, law permits that regime to retaliate, coercively and violently, against those who transgress. Reading the Gulag Archipelago and numerous other works dealing with the Soviet slave-labour camp system, it is remarkable the efforts that authorities went to, in their persecution of millions of people for political crimes, to give their actions a patina of legal respectability. 

There was no due process in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, at least not with respect to political crimes. But authorities — namely, the secret police — were determined to give the prosecution of so many people a formal legitimacy, so as in turn to legitimate the rule of Stalin and the other Communist autocrats. Certainly, the NKVD and other secret-police agencies in the Communist world, acted outside of the law, as draconian as the Soviet penal code actually was. At least several hundred thousand people, and probably several millions, were during Stalin’s reign, simply picked up, interrogated and then murdered by gunshot or other means, without even the formal, dubious processes of jurisprudence taking place to sanctify the act. 

As well, millions more who were convicted under the terms of Soviet law, were essentially worked, beaten or starved to death in the gulag corrective-labour system. Not even the Stalinists could argue that any of this was legally justified. However, every polity has had to cope with the excesses typically undertaken by law-enforcement agencies. This is true of liberal democracies, even — especially — the United States of America, the “land of the free” where the rule of law is supposed to be supreme, but where the police forces and the prison system generally have been notorious for their brutality and lethality. 

The worst penitentiaries of America in times past (and according to some, those in existence today) were only slightly less awful than the conditions found in the gulag. American prisons, especially those located in the southeast, even had their own system of slave-labour, with prisoners made to work long hours under hot sun, harvesting crops, making repairs to roads, and so on. The chain-gang is not, in itself, equivalent to the gulag. It is only to illustrate the inherent difficulties of enforcing law, without resort to gratuitous violence, even where justice and equality are supposed to be paramount. 

In the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, the principle of law as an instrument of justice, was part of state doctrine, even though the actual practice of law fell far short of the ideal (and the means of enforcing the law — the secret police and the penal system — dispensed with “natural” rights of justice altogether). It was a progressive force, in the Eastern bloc, just as the law has been throughout the history of civilization. 

Having established that right is found in written, explicit form, rather than in the exercise of brute force, law provides the ground for a greater democracy in the actually writing of the law. 

There was an even more important force for modernization than the law in Communist states: the Communist party itself. Totalitarian regimes are often called “police” states, and also “one-party” states. The ruling party has, though, a paradoxical status in a totalitarian country. The state is the domineering force in society; nevertheless, the state is in totalitarian countries subservient to the single ruling-party. The Communist party (theoretically at least) was not a state agency, but an expression of the collective will of the proletariat and the masses. 


But as the single-party is responsible for the actual management of society, the installation of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern bloc (and to a lesser extent, in east Asia as well) introduced something akin to bourgeois culture to tens of millions of former peasants and proletarians who took advantage of the universal schooling offered by the state, to raise themselves by their own bootstraps. 

It helped, too, that in most Communist countries, the management class of the old regime had either fled or been liquidated. The party needed functionaries to govern the new Soviet man, and thus so many of those from the meaner classes saw Communism not as a disaster (disastrous though it was to the masses), but as a means of bettering themselves. 

When the one-party definitively ensconces itself in power, there is the inevitable swelling of membership ranks, as the bright and ambitious look to the new order to provide them with authority and status. A constant theme of Communist-party internal propaganda and self-criticism, was directed toward the evil of “careerism” and “bureaucracy” (as though bureaucracy was somehow alien to the Soviet system). It was condemnation of the reality that most party members were in it for their own good, rather than for the revolution and the masses. 

It isn’t, however, as though ambition is an opponent of accomplishment, where pride is insufficient to the task. Soviet Communism was functional insofar as it relied upon the self-interest of each member of the party apparatus, to receive greater authority and responsibility through sagacious hard work. With promotion came greater privilege (if not of pay, since Soviet money was worthless in any case). 

This included better housing, use of non-shoddy recreational and leisure facilities, access to superior (i.e., foreign) consumer goods, good-tasting food, and the right to go abroad (or even to move around within the country itself). This must have been especially important, given the poverty and dreariness of life for non-party members under Communism. Of course, many of the “new class” (especially in the peripheral regions) enriched themselves through old-fashioned graft and legalized theft. 

But given the longevity of the Soviet Union, and the fact that Communist countries in eastern Europe built or maintained complex industrial economies (as inefficient as was their operation), many party members must have behaved in a way that, without doing too much violence to the word, was “bourgeois” in character. 

The “new class” was distinct from its equivalent in Western countries, of course. Yet, many plainly middle-class occupations in the West, as much today as during the Cold War, have no or only ancillary involvement in the mercenary behaviour that is traditionally associated with the word “bourgeois.” 

This includes not only civil servants (white collar or not) employed by the enormous state economies of all Western countries (including the United States), but also functionaries in the private sector, with no direct responsibility for buying and selling. The vast majority of those who do so, in turn, are not “owners” of the firms that employ, except when they are entrepreneurs and small-businesspeople, almost always relative pygmies compared to behemoths that are owned by distant investors and pension-plans. 

These white-collar people are, nevertheless and to a greater and lesser degree (depending largely on the factor of private-ownership), “bourgeois” in their social and work philosophy — competitive self-betterment through hard work and a job-smartly-done. This is widely derided as the “rat-race”, even by those participant in it. 

But its motivator, in capitalist countries, was that which obtained for the Communist New Class, that is to do better than who came before (as a point of family or community pride) and to avoid the desperate want characteristic of the lot of those not responsible for administrating. In any case, the consonance between apparatchiks and middle- and upper-manager business managers, was witnessed as the most successful businessmen of the post-Communist order, were previously high-ranking members of their respective Communist parties. 

Without adhering to any Hegelian dialectic as the motor of history, it is evident that the introduction of Communism was “necessary” in many parts of the world for modernization to take place as rapidly as it did — and thereby in these lands, transform a feudal- or semi-feudal order toward capitalism. 

The ethic associated with the bourgeois order, is by no means something “natural” to the human being. Instead, the nations known for their mercantile wit — be they Scots, Dutch, Ashkenazim, Armenian or Arab — are originally found among the outcast and outland, those who must turn to trade, initially because they have no other means of life. This is the means by which the community, or at least many members thereof, grows prosperous (and even wealthy). 

But it is telling that, the successful members of mercantile ethnicities, have almost invariably used their prosperity to ensure that their own heirs don’t have to be involved in selling at all. Thus, in early-modern times, the most successful of the financial and industrial bourgeoisie, successfully merged with the aristocracy. Later on, European Jews who had acquired great wealth through trade, were largely blocked from becoming blue-bloods, by virtue of the anti-Semitism. But their offspring largely forsook business for the professions. 

Even in the highly-commercialized societies of the anglophone world, the term “salesman” (like the word “business”) has not insignificant negative connotations in everyday speech, just as the profession and practice of “sales” itself (up to an including commercial advertising), is deemed unworthy as a vocation for those from “respectable” backgrounds. 

No surprise, then, that sales and salesmanship (another word with a poor connotation) have been the path to prosperity for those of working-class and poorer backgrounds in capitalist societies. 

The capitalist ethic is not, in short, intuitive. It requires a particular sort of training, which was perhaps initiated by king Frederick of Naples, all the way back in the thirteenth century. Historian Jacob Burckhardt describes how Frederick imposed regimented administration over his subjects, quite different from the decentralization characteristic of feudal society (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1868; Mentor Books / New American Library, 1960 paperback, p. 42):

Frederick's measures (especially after the year 1231) aimed at the complete destruction of the feudal State, at the transformation of the people into a multitude destitute of will and of means of resistance, but profitable in the utmost degree to the treasury. He centralized, in a manner hitherto unknown in the West, the whole judicial and political administration. No office was henceforth to be filled by popular election, under penalty of the devastation of the offending district and the enslavement of its inhabitants; Taxes, based an a comprehensive assessment and in accordance with Mohammedan practice, were collected by those cruel and vexatious methods without which, it is true, it is impassible ta obtain any money from Orientals. Here, in short, we find, not a people, but simply a disciplined multitude of subjects, who were forbidden, far example, to marry uot of the country without special permission, and under no circumstances were allowed ta study abroad. The University of Naples was the first we know of to restrict the freedom of study, whereas the East, in these respects at least, left its youth unfettered. But it was after genuine Mahammedan fashion that Frederick traded on his own account in all parts of the Mediterranean, reserving ta himself the monopoly of many commodities and restricting the commence of his subjects...

It was a formula pursued later on by absolutist monarchs such as Henry the Eighth of Britain, Louis XIV of France, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Proving that the power comes from control of the means of destruction, not of production, the royal states of late medieval and early-modern times took advantage of the new firearms technology (in the form of the canon) to consolidate power in the hands of the monarch. It was a form of government that, if insufficient in practice, was certainly totalitarian in intent. 

Without exception, the royal states sought to obtrusively, and often violently, insinuate themselves onto the private lives of their subjects, demanding adherence to one confession or the other, under pain of death or other harsh punishment. It wasn’t enough, for either Henry VIII or Louis XIV, to have people adhere publicly to either Anglicanism or the Roman church. They had to believe in private, too, and primitive versions of modern secret police were dispatched to ensure that no one was betraying the state religion behind closed doors. Moreover, the absolutist monarchs demanded obedience first and foremost not to kin, region, or lord, but to themselves. The absolutists even sought to control trade — granting royal charters for monopolies in most of the major economic sectors. Otherwise, they imposed if not onerous, then significant taxes on trade that they didn’t directly control, which were collected in turn with greater efficiency than ever before. 

The net effect of this agglomeration of power by royal states, as Spanish historian Antonio Maravall described it, was: 

...a society of spreading anonymity. The bonds of neighborhood, kinship, and friendship don't disappear, but they grow pale and are frequently lacking between those living nearby in the same locality ... To a great extent, relations exhibit the character of a contract: in terms of houses (rent), workday (salary), clothes (buying and selling), and so forth; and to a considerable degree displacement of population occurs (it suffices to think about the growth of cities and rural exodus, which means that a considerable part of the population does not live and die in their place of birth). In such a way there appear social connections that are not interindividual, are not between people known to one another. This alters the modes of behavior: a mass of people who know themselves to be unknown to one another behaves in a different way than a group of individuals who know they can be easily identified. Hence socially this already a mass society, and at its core it produces that depersonalization that turns humankind into a totality of manual laborers within a mechanical and anonymous system of production.

The “capitalist” system — an economy based on the cash nexus — is the most effective (though far from perfect) way of organizing such a rootless, anonymous society, based on highly engineered technology. But if it is human nature, almost, to aver from mercenary endeavour, why does a system based on just such thing, excel over another emphasizing more appropriately the conformist and communitarian nature of the human primate? 

It is precisely the fact of “alienation” referred to in Karl Marx’s writing, though his own account of this phenomenon was incomplete. Rationality and engineering were the means by which productive forces were unleashed, making luxuries into staples, and inventing countless goods and services that didn’t exist in the past. The cost of this was the organization of labour with maximal efficiency as to the result, but which demanded very little in the way of pleasure or involvement in the task at hand. This is true not only of factory work, but also office, shop, warehouse, construction, and most other forms of modern work. 

Even the “good” jobs, the high-paying professions and the like, require activities that no one would do voluntarily — which part of the reason why pay is so high in these sectors. 

There are some forms of work that are so participatory and pleasurable in themselves, that people would carry out, even without adequate or any compensation. These include athletics, the arts and engineering. Not coincidentally, Communist countries during the Cold war excelled at these areas, usually besting the West. 

An irony of the existential pleasures inherent in engineering, is that the that it results in work techniques and processes that are without pleasure for non-engineers. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union and other Communist states, administrators of industry couldn’t provide the necessary incentives — that is, a decent wage, in cash that actually had value — available to the capitalist West, to sufficiently motivate the proletariat at factory jobs and other tedious work. 

Instead, in the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern bloc, the brighter and more ambitious among the proletariat sought to leave behind the field and factory to get into management, that is into the Communist party and the preferred white-collar roles, where work was not only easier, it was also far better rewarded (and where little or no contribution to material productivity is found). 

It should be said that the existence of wage-labour isn’t, in itself, enough to encourage all manual-labour and service-sector workers to passion for their work; that much is self-evident. But even so, the possibility at better pay for less menial tasks, is manifest enough to affect working people in capitalist countries so that laziness and indifference to the job is not endemic to the system, as it was in Communist economies. 

Critics of capitalist economics argue that the ethnic of “getting ahead through hard work” is an illusion, and that how when one does in the “dog-eat-dog” world is down to plain luck. Certainly, chance does explain the difference between those who acquire great fortunes (the synonym is telling), and those who merely do well. But it is too much to assert that the populations that have (often for ascetic-religious reasons) a strong commitment to hard work are also witnessed to be wealthier than the median, merely because of “good luck.” 

Nor yet, that those who suffer relative poverty in capitalist countries are as such because fortune didn’t smile on them, unrelated to any lifestyle habits common to this strata (which tend to be in opposition to the abstemious cultural traits of the more successful groups). 

This is the nub of the success of the cash- or price-economy, as compared to command-socialism: not that capitalist firms are superior at engineering or invention, for this advantage belonged largely to Communist economies, or to the state-sector in capitalist countries. 

It was the ability to merchandise what was invented or subsidized by state funding, making it affordable to the masses. This relied, in turn, on the ability of the cash system to serve, as much as to build, engineering and industrial capacity; it was, and is, this service which is induced by the paid wage, which Communist economics simply couldn’t compete with. 

But Communism was an effective stepping-stone between feudalism and capitalism precisely because of its compulsory nature. Socialists and reactionaries alike, depict supply-and-demand conditions as some kind of irresistible force, sweeping all before it, especially the feudal and rural lifestyle. In fact, the project of modernization requires coercion, of a lesser or more severe type.