epistemic status: pretty sure about some parts, very uncertain but leaning towards “likely” in others
People have been talking about the new atheists again.
A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia:
The cuneiform documents of the end of the second millenium and the first half of the first millenium B.C. contain a number of isolated indications which, taken together, reveal that a small number of old and important cities enjoyed certain privileges and exemptions with respect to the king and his power. They apparently had legal status which differed in essential points from that of any other community. In Bablyonia, these cities were Nippur, Babylon, and Sippar; in Assyria, the old capital Assur and, later, Harran in Upper Mesopotamia. In principle, the inhabitants of these “free cities” claimed with more or less success, depending on the political situation, freedom from corvee work, freedom from military service […], as well as a tax exemption which we are not able to define in specific terms. […]
The privileges of the inhabitants of these cities were under divine protection. Their legal status was referred to as the kidinnūtu (“status of being under the aegis of the kidinnu,” probably some kind of standard) […]
Revealing the status of these privileged city-dwellers is a passage in the ritual texts describing the ceremonies performed during the New Year’s festival in Babylon. On that occasion, the king was permitted to enter the innermost sanctuary, but he could do this only after the high priest had taken from him all the insignia and indumentaria of kingship and humiliated him by slapping his face and pulling his ears.
If an atheist appeared in Sippar, how would they be perceived? Let’s say they’re materially all-in with the Sipparians: hates Nebuchadnezzar, wants Sippar to be truly free, sees the state religion as merely one obstacle to that end. Maybe that’s not even a big deal, it’s just some small part of the general ideology, “I mostly care about economic concerns, but sure, atheism is a part of that.”
Would you, a Sipparian, perceive them as: a) a true friend to the kidinnutu; b) an agent of the king looking for material gain?
We know the Roman deities: Jupiter, Mars, some other dude. Those were elite gods, the Capitoline Triad. The plebs had their own.
The Aventine Hill was the working class district of Rome. Kind of, whatever, I’m going to run roughshod over history to make a point. The Aventine Triad: Liber Pater, Libera, Ceres. These gods governed freedom, fertility, drunkenness, and crafty subversion. They were proper pleb gods, Falstaff in the sky, the opposite of our beloved Roman virtues, something something snubbing an aquiline nose.
They were still gods. The Romans – never much for sentiment – did not refrain from slaughtering the plebs out of loving kindness. When the plebs revolted, they fled to the temples of the Aventine Hill and negotiated terms. Breaching those temples would not be acceptable; divinity functions on common law arrangements, befouling the pleb’s temple puts yours on the chopping block. Hell, plenty of the Aventine temples were for Capitoline gods anyway, because cultural hegemony or whatever else floats your boat. A famous revolution or two, plebs hide in a temple, some history happens, now there’s a Tribune of the Plebs.
A few thousand years later, Italian socialists tried the same move demanding a shockingly similar thing, which is why the wiki article has to specify “Aventine Secession (20th Century).” It did not go as well for them; the gods had left us by then, some history happens, now there’s Mussolini.
This is imperfect history, don’t @ me, bro.
Let’s say you go to the plebs and point out that Jupiter is clearly a symbol of elite domination, oracles side with monied interests, the state’s religious apparatus is, as a general rule, in bed with their class enemies. You offer them the following: you can snap your fingers and Roman Paganism disappears. It’s not replaced by anything (you aren’t Jesus), it’s just gone. Everyone is unaffiliated now; “You’re free from the state’s ideological dominion!”
Same question as Sippar: Do they treat you as an enemy or as a friend?
Almost certainly related: Scott Alexander (hereafter SSC) writes about David Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Our Own and taps James C. Scott (hereafter Scott).
James C. Scott is associated with a tradition called “moral economy” (so is Polanyi), which might be the single worst name for it. A “moral economy” sounds like something Burning Man extra-drug-edition might suggest, Bill and Ted’s take on fiat currency, “What about, like, a system that was fair and excellent to the people, man?” This is not what it means.
Moral economy is, more or less, two observations:
a) Pre-modern societies have informal institutions that govern the economy, and these institutions rely on what sounds to us like “moral” language. That’s Polanyi’s “submerged economy“, primitive redistribution, etc. Why this is the case is a different debate. Maybe people are naturally munificent to their neighbors, maybe it’s because subsistence communities risk ruin if even a few members go under. Hence, in situations of economic and political distress, the peasant class falls into moral language, but it’s not “moralism” as we think of it. In a weird way, it’s closer to institutional language, a kind of rural legalese. The most famous is the demand for “just prices” of bread, etc.
b) The vast majority of our own economic experiences don’t really feel economic. I mean to say: Theoretically we don’t need to go to work. We could just live under a bridge and survive on charity or something. The reasons we go are a lot closer to morality: you need to keep your kids clothed and fed, or you need to make your parents proud, or [other]. Apply to most transactions, especially with members of your circle, and you have it. Why this pans out into good economic behavior is a different question, the point is that it does, but does not “feel” like it operates on that logic.
Putting this together, using our language: pre-modern communities have to punish defectors without recourse to a state’s judicial apparatus. They do so with moral language, social censure, status, reputation, etc., probably for a few reasons: a) minimizes friction in the community; b) is super-effective; c) allows for a careful tinkering case-by-case; d) is an instantaneous form of punishment, and thus well-suited to communities with narrow temporal wiggle-room to survive the winter. I like to phrase moral economy like this: “Everything you interpreted as moral or religious or ideological was actually material, you just failed to recognize that.”
We do the same, notably within our tribes under a full state, but our morals may be different and we largely fail to recognize this as “moral” behavior. It’s telling that when we do, it’s almost always in the context of a different moral system. See: howling rage about “welfare queens” (whether they exist or not is irrelevant). Who we consider a defector isn’t arbitrary, but it definitely varies. (An interesting pre-modern example would be medieval Christianity vs. the Zoroastrian ban on monasticism; it was a waste of resources and extremely selfish. Why try to just get salvation yourself?)
Moral economy is clearly related to Scott’s metis (as SSC points out), but metis comes from Seeing Like a State, and that book is arguing for all the positive things about metis and all the terrible ways that states crush it. Most moral economy research focuses on something different: how and why do groups revolt against institutions?
It looks like this:
It is, for example, no exaggeration to say that much of the folk culture of the peasant “little tradition” amounts to a legitimation, or even a celebration, of precisely the kind of evasive and cunning forms of resistance I have examined. In Malay society this tradition is captured in the Sang Kancil, or mouse deer tales familiar to all peasants. The mouse deer is the stereotypical “trickster” figure: a small and weak but agile creature who survives and triumphs over far more powerful beasts by his wits, his deceit, and his cunning.
I’m running the risk of just being “that Scott blogger”, but: a) I think the following is really helpful and, b) I’ll write about other things very soon.
Scott’s Weapons of the Weak is an account of the village Sedaka in the Kedah region of Malaysia. He stayed there for fourteen months in the aftermath of the “Green Revolution.” Since Sedaka is rice-farming country, that revolution was a big deal. Double-cropping arrives, big gains, everything looks exactly like Polanyi: Wages go up, but they’re unequal and mostly hiding losses; the work is worse where is does exist; land ownership was already unequal, but higher land prices (green revolution=more profit per acre) means that even the industrious poor can no longer work their way to ownership. Even more Polanyi like: since less labor is needed, the bonds between poor and rich are severed. The wealthy no longer need to keep the poor happy, and so traditional forms of wealth redistribution basically disappear (zakat, following Muslim custom, was formerly all but a requirement and is now either less or gone; employers used to provide lunch, now they charge for it), but they aren’t the taxable forms that would make sense to outside eyes. Government attempts to redress aspects of this, for every reason you can imagine, go directly into the pockets of the rich. Institutional power is institutional, etc. The powerful have material control in nearly every aspect; an earlier vague attempt at a kind of “secret society of resistance” was swiftly taken out by state authorities (note: it was something like a millenarian cult).
The book is about peasant resistance under that. It predates Seeing Like a State. It kind of launched an entire field of study in political science.
When we think of “peasant revolt” we more or less think of “desperate farmers armed with sickles.” When we think “revolt” in general, the temptation is to assume some sort of organization, political party, formal institution, etc. Scott thinks this is: a) extremely rare and, b) a sign of total desperation. Most of those get crushed, and when they succeed things often get worse (especially for the rural poor).
The peasantry is not stupid. Instead, they act in a way that Scott terms “everyday resistance”, which is:
…the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them. Most forms of this struggle stop well short of outright collective defiance. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage and so on. […] They require little or no coordination or planning; they make use of implicit understandings and informal networks; they often represent a form of individual self-help; they typically avoid any direct, symbolic confrontation with authority.
Scott has some sense that this has actually been the most effective form of rebellion the world’s ever known, mostly because its efficacy lies in no one knowing it.
I think this intuitively makes some sense: anyone in construction knows to add x% onto initial cost and time frames, but people still fail to do that all the time and projects collapse. Now add to that a work group genuinely incentivized to delay as much as possible (corvee labor tends to have bad morale), and either “a lot of money” or “the majesty of the state” on the line, and it’s not hard to imagine that all those great, semi-completed projects of history were slowly run down by mouse-deers.
I find this endlessly amusing. It’s also not the point I’m trying to make here.
The really interesting analysis is all about ideology. Not ideology as in “why class consciousness never emerges” but ideology as in “the preferred weapon of a class-conscious peasantry.” In other words, Scott flips the reflexive left(ish) argument.
I think one way to put this is that the poor, when possible, give the wealthy just enough ideological rope to hang themselves.
As much as the book talks about certain material actions (theft, etc.), what the peasantry really do is play at the traditional senses of morality. That is, “slander” is critical, as is the ability to hold wealthy landlords to task by invoking traditional Islamic and Malaysian moral duties. This seems to work: Scott breaks down the land-prices and points out that rents are below proper market-prices. The landed class is often afraid to bring in cheaper outside labor, and a lot of their fear comes from social status and mores.
The latter is particularly interesting because it almost looks like a traditional labor-movement strike, it just doesn’t use any of that language. Indeed, I suspect that outside labor is threatening partially because of this: it’s mostly itinerant Thai workers, so neither Malay nor Muslim, and therefore unlikely to press for and continue the traditions that Sedaka’s workers rely on. It also means the peasantry have no power over those laborers: moral complaints only work if someone has the same moral code. (Also notable that there genuinely is a strike at one point, and it goes terribly for the peasantry; this mostly confirms the “hidden resistance is better resistance” thing.)
If it seems to you like “They should just form a union and call in unionizers” or, worse, “The fact that they don’t is clearly because of religious fanaticism and cultural chauvinism” then you are insane. a) I’m pretty sure that the Ghost Busters showing up is a more realistic proposition. b) Let’s say that unionizer actually succeeds this one time. $10 says they come from an urban area and have more liberal, anti-traditional ideas, which means cost/benefit says the peasantry risks them subverting all the other forms of their power in the process.
Scott is left-wing, but he’s explicitly taking aim at a certain left tradition: Gramsci, Althusser, etc. This tradition is, more or less, opium of the masses on steroids. Someone is going to tell me that Actually, what they mean is […] and I’m going to say that you’re wrong and I don’t care. The Gramsciites I’ve met may have some super-secret other reading, but 95% of them present it as, more or less, “Sheeple just get propaganda’ed, bro, which is why they don’t rise up. We intellectuals need to show them the way.” They would look at Sedaka and instantly start screaming about cultural hegemony.
In this context, what we find in Sedaka is an eroding dominant ideology that never quite delivered the goods and that now no longer even serves the interests of the larger cultivators. It is therefore a canishing and even retrograde tradition that has become the ideological weapon by which the rich may be further deligitimated. The irony, of course, is that the ideological weapon the poor now find so servicable was earlier fashioned and handed to them by the same rich cultivators and landlords. A “shared” ideology is by no means a guarantee of consent or harmony.
Scott also explicitly points to American examples:
In his searching analysis of slavery in the United States, for example, Genovese has shown how its legal codes and its ideology of paternalism – both violated with impunity in practice – came to be used by the slaves themselves to assert their claims for subsistence, humane treatment, and the preservation of the slave family.
Ironically, the anti-hegemonist school is seeing like a master would. The peasants in Sedaka go out of their way to appear compliant to all authorities and edicts, and to emphasize the way those help the masters. It’s the best way to ensure that those rules survive. That does not change the fact that the peasantry is largely behind their maintenance: despite private blasphemy, they’re way overrepresented in the Islamist parties. That’s not because they believe more strongly (Haji is more or less an insult among them for “rich and stingy”; Hajj is notably a necessary tenant of Islam), it’s because that gives them power. It’s also because it’s the only way to confront authority without direct danger.
Scott doesn’t say this, but you can tell that he gets a belly-laugh out of the following scenario: consider a political scientist who goes to interview a dozen plebs and a dozen elites. The plebs tell the political scientist that they work as hard as they can, that they never disobey, that the moral rules favor the masters, etc. The masters say that the plebs are lazy, disreputable, impose strict moral standards, etc. An academic who is a True Blue Leftist goes home and writes that the governing ideology holds the peasantry to be lazy and [etc], based on ideological dominance of the master class. Moreover, the masters are clearly incentivized to tell that to outsiders in order to justify and maintain their dominance. Zip, zap, done, except that everything was the opposite of true. The peasantry is incentivized to portray themselves as hard-workers oppressed by ideology, but are also incentivized to be the opposite. Moreover, it’s best if they can maintain the construction “lazy peasantry.” If they drag their feet, it’s merely “oh, that’s what plebs do,” as opposed to “We’ll never hire [particular pleb] again; he’s lazy.” It preserves the safe use of a weapon.
I’m not saying the peasantry isn’t oppressed, nor that ideology doesn’t play into it, merely that it’s much, much more complex than that.
The masters, for their part, have very little incentive to do anything. They have all the material power. The only possible way you could get this backwards is: a) you think the poor are children; b) you’re credulous enough to think that they’ll “tell you the truth” simply because, despite the fact that doing so puts them in serious danger; c) you think you’re important enough for the ruling class to want to justify themselves in language you understand, which makes you a –
“The rural poor are blinkered by ideology, they’re ignorant, we have to free their minds.”
I dunno, man, they fooled you.
This is reading like a defense of cultural conservatism. It isn’t. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m overgeneralizing, but this at least partially answers a question I’ve always had. It’s more or less the “opium of the masses” thing. Metis is likely part, but it’s not the full solution, because a lot of metis does look extremely unfair from the outside. The question is basically: “Why do the poor close ranks the moment traditions – and specifically traditions that appear to be super against their interests – are threatened?”
These issues come from modernity, which is probably why I sound like a primitivist when I talk about it. Again, not the point, this is not a call to join the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia. The point is simply that industrialization, modernization, etc. is the cause, which the peasantry knows, and it’s why they literally have a party when a tractor sinks.
Material power inequalities either stay the same or get worse, while cultural models that favored or at least benefited the poor tend to disappear. “Nuh-uh, social mobility is much better now!” Lol in Swedish. Even if true, what does that mean? Poor people still exist, right?
Those cultural models tend to get liquidated because, well, globalism, universities, cultural liberalism, etc. Religion is a large part of it because it gives them social power, so it makes sense that the peasantry wants leaders and community members to share it so they have some sense of power and so pushes for that as hard as possible. Still, we shouldn’t forget that those mouse deer stories are no less part of a conservative cultural tradition, and that they train and occult the kinds of subversive, material action the peasantry relies on. I also suspect that other forms are no less crucial, but may be a bit less cute than plucky forest animals. All of those are threatened by seemingly-liberating-ideas.
When if the opium smoke vanishes and we’re left with pure, ruthless, material struggle, who wins? a) people with all the material power, or b) peasants. In his defense, this is exactly what (a certain interpretation of) Marx himself wanted, because it would make the plebs fight. Whether or not global proletarian revolution is desirable, that requires “being able to actually fight.” Don’t know about you, but it doesn’t look like the revolution is coming tomorrow from where I’m sitting.
Go back to the very opening of this essay: proto-Marxist wants to free Sippar from the yoke of the divine king. Atheism is a part of that, not all of it, “I’m on your side.” It might be different if that proto-Marxist has an army the size of the state’s, but if he lacks it – if he lacks material power to combat the cold hard realpolitik after – then does he look like a friend to Sippar, or like an enemy?
I’m not saying that “atheism means no morality”, that’s ridiculous. I’m saying it’s a different kind of morality, one that peasants don’t have power over, they don’t know the language to properly game the system. Removing mouse deer stories doesn’t mean removing “material gain”, as if it could be replaced by, say, an institutional welfare system, etc. It’s removing a weapon, something much more certain, doubly so when you already distrust corrupt institutions.
Thus: Activists love mouse deer stories, because Robin Hood is their guy. “He was basically an Oberlin grad.” Then they try to go native and realize that, most of the time, the peasants see them as the enemy. This confuses them greatly, because don’t those fucking rednecks know that we’re trying to help them? [Oberlin] might even have similar religion, identical cultural concerns, whatever, but that’s super unlikely. They’re an outsider coming from a university tradition, making memetic infection more likely. What’s your guess as to risk/reward?
Good for the mouse deer. They recognize a Prince Hal when they see one.
It’s this next part I’m unsure of.
I think the weapons stuff makes sense in certain contexts. Much of moral economy comes from peasant societies. The rest of it emphasizes states with serious corruption problems, areas where there is no institutional redress or the poor feel that there is no proper redress. Normally they have good reason to assume such.
However flawed as our institutions may be, the situation is not identical. [Poor guy] living in the Ozarks does not have a great life, and he does not have much institutional power, but it isn’t as dire the situation of a Malaysian subsistence farmer in 1976. So take everything I’m about to say with however much salt you want, I don’t know how far to extend it, but I think there are some very telling signs.
One way to put this is “Why the culture wars, and why are they so intense?” It’s notable that the increasing political agitation of certain cultural movements seems to track with lost confidence in larger organizations. Top: churches, small businesses, police (which is mostly local anyway). Military is kind of an outlier, for another piece. Also notable that this is spread all across the political spectrum. Also interesting to note that the new left’s focus on cultural issues has done a number on working class support, not merely “white working class support”. Also interesting that while Vox finds little ideological consistency among [plebs], the one they do find is social issues. They control for religion until it goes away, which is weird, because “glaring exceptions” seems like the kind of thing you shouldn’t control for. Whatever, I’m not a scientist.
Wait – this is still about religion, right?
The new atheist discussion was sparked by SSC, and it mostly concerned relations between the left and the atheist movement. Namely: why have they degraded if the left is mostly atheist itself?
[…] I would not prohibit [religion] even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.
A) This is generous of him, in the same way that it’s “feminist” to let your wife talk to other men so long as they’re eunuchs. I admit that a… what, toothless religious menagerie sounds like a fun day’s outing, but seriously?
B) Note how different this is from the classic anti-clerical argument that religion is used as a tool of social control by the elite. In that argument, it’s hostile to the interests of the poor, it’s “opium of the masses,” etc. Conversely, in this argument it’s religious plebs that are hostile to the elite. They’re plebbing up the fucking place, it stinks of commons and superstition. They’re dangerous, they’re storming the Bastille of reason like some sort of weird anti-Comteian revolution.
This is likely some part of the left discomfort with new atheists. It’s really, really hard not to read Hitchens as engaging in olden-days pleb-bashing. “It’s not about class.” It absolutely is. “It’s about education.” So class, we agree.
That’s not the only thing.
Islam is a factor, but that was always a problem from what I recall. I think the real break came, more or less, with the end of the Bush years. Instead of fundamentalist Christians, you had the more economically oriented Tea Party. The end of blatantly, explicitly religious influence on American politics meant that anti-religion was no longer unifying. Plenty of others have said this, I’m just pointing it out again for two reasons:
One, it’s pretty interesting that Christianity was a threat there, and specifically a threat to urbanites. One way to put this is that Hitchens was absolute correct, in a way. Religion was a political tool being used to further interests hostile to his own. It’s just that some part of that is, if Scott is right, a kind of direct class struggle that Hitchen’s self-proclaimed Marxism really should have noticed.
Two, though the focus on religion-qua-opium is mostly gone from the left, the theory behind that is not. Academia switched from “religion” to cultural issues with new names, note the heavy academic focus on “ideology” as a moving factor, there may no longer be priests but their scary, hegemonic role has been taken by other forces. “Why aren’t the plebs revolting with us? Ah, yes, *sniffle* ideology.” This also seems to compound. Consistently, you then want to fight “ideology”, which means culture war, which means threatening weapons of the weak, which means… I know what you’re thinking, and no. I’m not talking about “[-ism]”. I mean the general liberalizing of America: X-Mas over Christmas, green hair and septum rings, Teen Vogue articles about how best to huff nitrous and This Is Why That Resists Trump or whatever.
Fox News wheelhouse shit, basically. Sure, I find it ridiculous and obnoxious. It’s also not meant for me, because I have material power to fight without it.
What Hitchens really gets wrong, I think, is that “those fucking plebs started it.” I know this is a he-said-she-said thing, but I have some sympathy for the view that since industrialization local culture has just been demolished by outside interests. Whether that was intentional or not is totally unimportant, as is the question: “Haven’t material gains made up for it?” I’m not even sure how to answer that, probably depends on the person, also sort of apples and oranges. The question is maybe better phrased, in our language, “How much money would you accept to have vastly less control over your life than you currently do?”
I dunno, man. A lot?
If you read this as an endorsement of religion, traditionalism, [scary other], then you’ve read it wrong. I’m agnostic on the subject of most traditional values. Some have metis, others no, likely they’re useless in the modern age, why revive them? I also doubt that the kind of politicking above is the whole story, and even if it’s a lot of it, then there are horrible results basically always.
I’m also not trying to agenbite your inwit, I do not care about moral sentiment, “the plebs are like ick but don’t tell them that” is the official platform of most parties, pretty sure that’s a direct Lenin quote but he was paraphrasing Churchill. You aren’t supposed to say it anymore, which is why both Romney and Clinton got dinged, but you’re definitely supposed to feel it, and you can tell because triangulation is a real political tactic and sometimes it means going deep on a bowl of grits. I do not give a shit, I think it’s fine to want plebs to stop plebbing, lord knows I hate dueling banjos and Roseanne as much as the next guy.
Also, I’ve been pretty value-neutral on this, but it’s not like most of these traditions are things I like. The vast majority conflict with every moral impulse I have; admittedly, kind of the point. I’m likely the enemy, or at least party to them.
Again: unsure. Still, one reading of culture war is that it’s a way to change morality, maybe to tie all morality to politics. Ignoring my own sentiment about that, were I a pleb, I would perceive that as an attempt to take my weapons. It supplants the field I know with one in which I am distinctly disadvantaged and utterly uncertain. If nothing else, it forces your struggle out into the open, right? Out in that open, the They have all the cards.
“It’s just outdated cultural flair” can only be said by someone who doesn’t need it. If your primary weapons are: a) religious grievance, b) mouse deer stories, then those are the whole world. Lose those, and what do you have? The IOU for a proletarian dictatorship some college kid left you. Sure, they’ll pay eventually.
A certain brand of reactionary is salivating, and a certain brand of leftist is fuming, because they both think I’m talking about “the white working class.” I am not. Black Christians are more hostile to atheists than any other demo, has it never occurred to you why? Hint: much of the civil rights successes came from appealing to Christian and/or “good, traditional American” moral impulses, and a tremendous amount of necessary support came from religious institutions.
Yes, yes, I know. That’s “respectability politics.” Sorry, I’m going to say it. I think a good, working definition of “privilege” might be the ability to denigrate the successes of “respectability politics”, because it implies that you already have the power to avoid them. See also: “it’s just ideology” and “if we get it out in the open, then we’ll have a real revolution.”
I started this blog a year ago. Time flies. It’s fitting that I, more or less, just rewrote the very first post. Don’t read it – this one’s better.
What’s the point? Living under a theocracy is pretty undesirable, so it’s definitely not live-and-let-live relativism. I think it’s, well, more or less the opposite: material matters come before ideological matters. Moreover, those ideological matters might just be material even if you fail to perceive it. If you want to use working class power, then plan accordingly. If you’re scared of the coming plebocracy, then my advice is the same. Don’t underestimate your enemy, it will go poorly for you, worse things are waiting.
Since this is (only very) technically about the new atheists and the left, here’s a general takeaway: 1) The left (correctly) recognized the new atheists as punching down, as semi-to-totally-indifferent to the wealth and power of their chosen enemies. Moreover, that implies a certain elitist ideological leaning. 2) The new atheists (correctly) recognized the left’s blindspot on cultural conservatism among the poor, and all the particular ways that might be used against leftish interests. There can be no reconciliation because that’s a narcissistic injury to both parties, interpret as metaphor or not, don’t care.
I have no idea how to prove any of this. Sort of by nature, it can’t be. It’s not like most mouse deer know they’re doing this. Selection effects + moral economy means it’s not necessarily understood as “Machiavellian political games.” Even if it is, then there’s no reason to openly say it and every reason not to.
Revolutionaries die, and they die because we know their names. Mouse deer survive, and they survive because the only name we know is “mouse deer.”
I think that’s worth some measure of respect.
top still from Hunger by Steve McQueen
31 thoughts on “Banish Plump Mouse Deer and Banish All the World”
This reminds me of when I was a wee lad reading the Communist Manifesto for the first time: I remember the exact paragraph where I got derailed, where I went from nodding along and agreeing to “wait, what the hell? no, that’s incorrect” so quickly I got whiplash: it was the part where Marx is explaining how the proletariat doesn’t have national character or religion, that these were recognized by the proletariat as a bunch of “bourgeoisie prejudices”.
This is obviously the exact opposite of how things actually are: it’s the bougie leftists like myself that are the ones who rejected nationalism and religion, while the modern-day plebs are clinging to both like a man overboard clings to a liferaft.
So, thanks for this; I read that SSC article that spawned this whole thing and just facepalmed.
To be fair to Marx, at the time that he was writing, Nationalism was very Bourgeois indeed.
The proletarians of the time did not really care about German unification or a free press or throwing off the yoke of the Hapsburgs or whatever; they were more concerned about the price of bread and the industrial threat to their traditional modes of existence. It was romantic Bourgeois political liberals who were the enthusiastic Nationalists. Mazzini in Italy, Kossuth in Hungary, etc.
I’m currently following Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast through the Revolutions of 1848 (which is incidentally the same year that the Communist Manifesto was published), and he stresses that the reformists and revolutionaries in all these countries (the Revolutions of 1848 were all over Europe) were divided over whether they should focus on the political question or the social question. The political question was all about what kind of governments the countries would have – would they have a constitution and parliament, would there even be a king and aristocracy at all (and if so, what were their privileges), who gets the franchise, what political rights would be guaranteed (e.g. free press), would Hungary be run on Magyar-nationalist principles, etc. – and was the focus of Bourgeois liberals, and Nationalism was in this category. The social question was all about how economic organization might be arranged to protect the poor peasants and workers from ‘price-gouging’ and the economic shakeup caused by industrialization.
The conservative/reactionary old order often tried to use this split to their advantage – by granting some concessions to the liberals in order to sway them to their side against the socialists and proletarian rabble, who the liberals were often just as terrified of as the conservatives were.
This whole discussion (both the post and Scott) feels pre-Nietzschean. Perhaps even pre-Gorgias. The analysis of Callicles makes all of these matters crystal clear. The “coming” plebocracy?
Start by going up a meta level.
I read the Genealogy, etc. seriously but not literally, but if I chose to read it literally the following thought would occur: the virtues most admired by the current elite, whatever they are, cannot help but be the end result of slave morality. They are, after all, the self-justifications of weak who rule the strong. To which one wonders which is more pleasant to Davos: protestations about the dangerous passions of religion and the unruliness of the lower classes, or plebbish folk-religion?
Big if true. But, of course, Nietzsche shouldn’t be read that way.
Nietzsche often judges strength not by position but by chosen enemy – you know a man’s value by his self-respect, which appears in his chosen nemesis. It’s interesting that the mouse deer traditionally chooses the strongest enemy possible, and does so on material terms. Hitchens, at least, has chosen strawmen and lower-order rabble. I believe his big breakout came because he took aim at a kindly old nun.
But, of course, Nietzsche shouldn’t be read that way, and this is mostly for fun.
When I read your description of the Capitoline and Aventine Triads– with the aside mentioning that the Capitoline gods were worshiped on the Aventine too– my first thought was, “OF COURSE the Capitoline gods are worshiped in both places! That’s the whole point!” I could have sworn I’d read some story like this– where an emissary from the (metaphorical) Capitoline goes to the Aventine expecting to show respect for the quaint local customs, but realizes with horror that they’re actually worshiping the Capitoline gods, only better. It’s frustrating me that I can’t identify the source. It feels like the kind of thing that Chesterton or O’Connor would write.
Speaking of Chesterton… my other strong reaction to this post was when you said not to read it as an endorsement of religion. The reaction was “No kidding– this is a dismissal of religion!” I’m no anthropologist but my impression is that custom/metis is not necessarily or even primarily religious– it’s just kind of its own thing. When Chesterton wrote about this stuff in The Flying Inn, his metis wasn’t Catholicism– it was beer. Reducing religion to metis is (1) inaccurate, and (2) fatal to religion. Admittedly the two get mixed together quite often, but from the inside it feels like they’re very different psychologically / sociologically. FWIW.
You’re right that metis is not primarily religious. I just use religion as an example. Perhaps I’ve overused it.
I do think it’s important to this post, though, given that I’m really focused on the use of social norms. These aren’t primarily religious either, but enough either come from it or justify themselves under the aegis of religion that it’s a helpful go-to. It’s also, in some sense, an attempt to get at why religious fundamentalism is so connected to politics, and especially to the politics of lower classes. Finally, other, non-religious examples of the poor using social norms are, uh… well, it would require a whole different argument with much more hedging. PAS is an Islamist party, but it’s also a Malay Nationalist party; I figured it was best to just let people Strauss it out on their own.
I apologize if my examples seemed dismissive of religion on its own terms. Other comments have pointed at Nietzsche’s slave morality, but that feels a little on the nose here. Also wrong. It’s pretty clear to me that Hitchens’ arguments are much closer to what Nietzsche discusses in the Genealogy, and whatever the poor are doing with mouse deer is… well, a different kind of relation to him. I think a better way to read this – certainly a way to do so that points at a positive religion elsewhere – would be these arguments paralleled with Kierkegaard’s critiques in Practice in Christianity.
Thought provoking stuff. Could you elaborate at all on what the metis is that American cultural conservatives are concerned with preserving? To me it looks like Americans are at a much later point in the destruction of truly traditional culture and methods of resistance than Malaysian peasants. We’re those peasants after all the traditions have been crushed, the commons have been enclosed, the itinerant laborers have been brought in, etc. And now the culture wars are between people who have adapted more quickly to changed conditions and started to create a new metis for the new times, and people sticking with the no longer as useful metis they inherited.
Well, one of the problems with discussing “religion” in general is that the Abrahamic religions seem, to me at least, to all be very odd.
Like, one experience missionaries have all the time is this:
“Hey, there is only one God, and He’s the only one you can worship”
“Okay, great! Give us his idol and we’ll put it in the temple with all the other idols!”
I’m not wholly sure how this relates, but I did find myself wondering, in the early part of the article, why Atheism would even need to be political in those pre-modern contexts.
As an modern-day American, it’s really hard to get any kind of feel for what non-Abrahamic religion would look like as a real social force, but even there… Like, Jewish attitudes towards living in a country of non-Jews are frequently very different to Evangelical Protestant attitudes towards living in a country of non-evangelical Protestants.
This has been something I have thought for a long time; Atheism is an attitude of disbelief towards all religions, but in the English speaking nations it’s also particularly a reaction to Christianity and Islam in specific.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Great little essay here. I’m going to nitpick, because that’s one of the things I know how to do, and I like showing off tricks.
I’m not sure that “material power” is the right term to use for the use you’re putting it to here. The problem is that, as Marx would have it, there’s a distinct kind of material power that anyone who works with things has by default. It’s hard, in contrast, to point to what material things the elites actually have any access to at all. Hell, a lot of the elites don’t seem to even cook their own food. So where do we get off calling it material? It works well in the sense that we talk about material conditions, but not so much with material as a vector of labor and life. I think that slightly better terminology than material vs social, here, would be structural versus counterstructural, where counterstructural doesn’t mean anti-traditional but rather undermining hierarchical structures of society.
This is all for the sake of a single move, which is to make material power into something personal and descriptive of a worthy individual way of living. It also has one added benefit: if society restructures, whether that happens in a hard break or a slow burn, what value does structural power serve one in contrast to a direct, labor-oriented material power? That’s just so I’m laying out my cards. I never was ever very good at poker, and I prefer letting my partner play in bridge.
LikeLiked by 1 person
How far down the materialism rabbit hole do you have to go before power is ‘truly’ material, though? We all work at insane levels of abstraction in the modern world; unless your job is literally ‘subsistence farmer’ you depend on society basically functioning. A ditch-digger who eats mostly TV dinners and McDonalds also doesn’t cook his own food.
I think power is material if it translates into material goods and/or services. Social power can always be turned into material power (a celebrity can get a free meal lots of places) but it doesn’t work both ways, or at least not reliably; lots of people’s grandmothers are as good or better cooks than Gordon Ramsey, and probably lots of them are just as caustic, but there are not lots of Gordon Ramseys. Gordon Ramsey’s social power does not flow from his material accomplishments (makes a good burger) but rather from some weird collection of internal societal factors (I don’t know what they are and neither does anybody else; if we could solve for celebrity we’d have only physicists on reality TV). The social world is the primary one for humans, not the material; we’re apex creatures in every sense and almost never have to worry about baseline animal subsistence unless we ourselves screw up very badly, at whatever the relevant level of amalgamation is.
A few separate issues:
What is “metis”? Your usage isn’t in any dictionary, and I can find no hint as to what you mean by it using Google.
It’s really odd how you act throughout as if class conflict is what everything is all about. Like when you respond indignantly to Hitchens. Hitchens is literally talking about people who want to kill him and are working towards their own revolutions, whose goal is NOT to use religion as a tool for the poor (see the Taliban and ISIS). You somehow don’t even notice what he’s talking about, even as you criticize it.
will be in a separate comment, since WordPress is filtering it out for some reason.
I need to experiment until I figure out
how to get a linebreak
here. Sorry I can’t delete this comment after posting it.
It appears that putting a number…
in front of a new paragraph…
removes both the number and the linebreak.
Nope, there is no pattern here I can discern. Lines 1 and 2 above were separated in the same way as lines 2 and 3.
Three: “Also interesting to note that the new left’s focus on cultural issues has done a number on working class support”–This is not a mystery in need of explanation. I live in a small, heavily Republican working-class town. The left’s focus on cultural issues is a direct attack on us ideologically, economically, and morally.
The left has turned from being the party that promotes work projects, to the party that gets them stopped in order to divert the money elsewhere, or for environmental reasons, or for mysterious reasons.
People interpret this as spite for the white working class, because the left consistently displays contempt for and moral condemnation of the white working class, MUCH more so than the right. The left is basically the “I hate the white working class” party. Wondering why rural workers don’t support it is like wondering why Jews don’t support the Nazis.
Gun control: The left has no clue how culturally important guns are out here; no idea how many votes they’re losing because of it. This is part of the arrogance of the left: a complete disinterest in rural life, and the assumption that whatever works well in big cities will work the same way anywhere else.
The left demands us to deny reality, e.g., to pretend men and women are the same. Any farmer knows that hens and roosters are different, bulls and cows are different, and that doesn’t require any cultural conditioning. Folks here /like/ being men and being women, and the left continually tries to take that away.
The cost of meeting the continual stream of demands from the federal government on “cultural issues” is the main threat to our existence now. Right now my bro-in-law is working on a refit of a bakery in town to meet new disabled-access legislation. This requires enlarging the bathroom, moving all the stuff that was where the new bathroom has to expand into, and installing a new plumbing system (because someone decided handicapped people are more likely to burn themselves with hot water, so they need a hot water supply that isn’t hot, while the bakery needs a water supply that is hot.) It’s costing over $20,000 for a tiny one-person bakery. This is /after/ already meeting all the previous demands of disabled-access legislation.
Small businesses here make a profit somewhere around a thousand dollars a month, or none at all, so this is two years’ profit down the drain to meet senseless requirements for handicapped people who aren’t even here, because farming and factory work are not good jobs for the disabled. And let’s not forget that the second-biggest factory in town here, employing over 100 people, was shut down by the government recently because it had one thermostat mounted a few inches too high for disabled-access regulations, because it was attached to a hot-air pipe, because that’s what the thermostat design requires and the pipe couldn’t be moved. Eventually the government said the factory could open if they put a lock on the thermostat so that no-one could adjust it.
There are many towns nearby that are dying, a quarter of their stores are empty and boarded up. Small business survival is really marginal here, and the SINGLE MAJOR REASON is the cost of meeting new government regulations, which always come from the left. It’s a genocide of the small town life.
In short, it has nothing to do with lower/upper-class conflict. The left is unaware that all of their values and their plans of action are ones designed for big cities, that don’t work in small towns.
Everything you described is lower class according to prevailing societal norms.
Farmers and factory workers produce the food and goods everyone uses, but since they are replaceable (we have plenty of food and goods, if your factory or farm goes down there are plenty more), they are individually unimportant (in economic terms, anyway)
Another example: Strict environmental regulations on disposal of electronic parts were causing people to be unable to throw out their trash. So a guy in town decided to make a business collecting electronic trash and disposing of it in an environmentally safe way.
But after he’d already bought a big empty factory and filled it with old TVs to be disposed of, the regulations changed, and he found he couldn’t afford to get rid of them in any allowable way, and couldn’t dispose of them anywhere else. So he’s stuck with a factory full of old broken TVs, and he can’t dispose of them, and even declaring bankruptcy probably wouldn’t help him, because statutory requirements usually don’t count as “claims” in bankruptcy court. All he can do is sit there with a factory full of broken TVs while his rent debts and civil fines pile up, and the local paper runs articles denouncing him for endangering the town with “toxic waste” (broken TV sets sitting on shelves).
And, wait, let’s not forget my mom’s friend who made a living baking things and selling them to local merchants, and was shut down because food “safety” regulations said she had to have a /separate kitchen/ for making goods for public consumption.
We are entering an age in which small businesses simply can’t afford to comply with, or even to keep up with, government regulation. They haven’t got a lawyer or an accountant on staff, they literally don’t have the time to read and understand all of the regulations, and they certainly don’t have time or money to fight them in court. It’s destroying small towns, and it’s almost entirely due to the left.
In short, the left is unknowningly in bed with big corporations, because creating more government regulation is always favorable to big businesses. The cost of compliance is constant regardless of a business’ size. It’s a negligible cost for big corporations, and an impossible one for the smallest businesses.
I think your hyper-focus on “class conflict”, in purely economic terms, is part of the problem. The left is dominated by people from the upper class, whose real agenda has always been to impose upper-class cultural values in the name of lower-class economic values, and who actually dislike and distrust the lower classes and so actually seek to disempower them even more than the right does, by transferring power to the central government. Marx’s insistence that only economic relations really matter is a convenient excuse for bourgeois leftists to not notice their own cultural imperialism.
Er. I repent of saying the left’s “real agenda has always been to impose upper-class cultural values”. Imposing a particular set of upper-class, Ivy League values and metaphysics does appear to be their only agenda now, however.
I think someone else already made the comparison to gun control in the US, but it’s really on the nose here. The elites are literally taking the weapons away, and have no idea why the plebs are mad.
You might even be able to view gun control as a form of every day resistance. Gun owners aren’t actually going to defend against a military assault, but it does make things like policing a just bit more daunting.
Regarding the sniff ideology, I think it’s worth noticing that Zizek’s usual targets aren’t religious ideologies but state ones. He talks a lot about the Soviets, also the Indian caste system. Probably because these were designed intentionally, as a means of control, and imposed top-down. How these manage to function like “organic” ideologies, e.g. religion, is beyond me though.
This is interesting, but you probably could have wrapped it up in many fewer words after section six or so.
Also thanks to baddhorse and mark-5 for good comments.
The Capitoline Triad did not include Mars. It didn’t even include “some other dude” because Juno and Minerva are not dudes.
Very thoughtful blogg