October 28, 2012

On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”

Posted in Culture, History, Natural Science, Theory tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 17:57 by Matthijs Krul

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

So Edmund Burke begins his examination of the natural sublime in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), often seen as one of the central works in outlining the concept of the sublime and its role in the cultural transition from the classicist to the romantic period. Arguably, it is written somewhat too early to fulfil that role; but in its descriptions of the central concepts of the natural sublime – the effects of fear, of vastness, of infinity, of darkness, of magnificence and of great light – it is beyond doubt a powerful foreshadowing of the central themes of romantic figurative art and of the notion of the thrill of the sublime, especially the sublime of nature, that has moved us ever since. The stereotypical depiction of this sensation is of course the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, and the like.

But I believe the contemporary world has a powerful place for the natural sublime, whatever may have been the progress of technology since those days. Indeed, one may argue that this process, together with the attendant secularization and disenchantment of the world, has in fact strengthened the desire for the experience of the natural sublime, by making it harder to find in the immediate effects of the everyday natural world, and by making that natural world a more threatened and remote thing for the city-dwellers that make up the majority of the population of the world today. Indeed, perhaps the ever increasing familiarity with the scope and interconnectedness of our own globe in the here and now, provided by the hitherto unimaginable progress of communication and computing technologies, airplanes and cargo ships, makes the modern natural sublime require an altogether greater tableau to effect that great thrill and terror that causes the suspension of the reasoning mind and the carrying away of the emotions that Burke describes. Read the rest of this entry »

October 18, 2012

Slouching toward Weimar: Once more on the Crisis in Greece

Posted in Economics, Europe, Fascism tagged , , , at 14:16 by Matthijs Krul

There are perhaps not many places in the world where it is possible for several general strikes to follow in succession, uniting private sector workers, public sector workers, officials, even shopkeepers in resistance to the politics of the government, and yet little seems to change. But this is the case in Greece, where today once more Syntagma was filled with the banners and shouting of demonstrators protesting against the austerity policies of the old oligarchy ruling the country. Let nobody be deceived about how dire the situation truly is: this summer, Greek unemployment hit an official 25%, with more than half the young population out of work, and the real figure is almost certainly higher due to the number of workforce ‘dropouts’ and the considerable informal sector in the country. Educated Greeks try to flee the country en masse for any place that will have them, while paramilitary toughs in black uniforms roam the streets, beating up immigrant pedlars and gay actors alike without any repercussion. The police force is now estimated to be majority at least passive supporters of the fascist movement Chrysi Avyi, a situation no European country has seen since the fall of Berlin. The enormous increases in the contradictions between the different sectors of society is making itself felt across the country as a consequence of the deeply severe ‘austerity’ imposed by order of the creditor countries to which Greece, despite previous partial defaults, remains hopelessly indebted. Indeed, the policies of shoving the costs of repayments off onto the masses of the population not only increases insecurity and resentment against foreigners and outsiders, putting lives at risk, but also so deeply damages the short and medium-term income of the working classes and small bourgeoisie, so that state policy appears as the despairing attempts of a dog to bite itself in the tail.

However, that this strategy can only further sharpen the political and economic contradictions is something clear enough to the oligarchy both within and without Greece. This is not, as some (post-)Keyenesians would have it, a mere manner of stupidity, a strategy for capital that cannot possibly work. Instead, it is the only possible strategy for capital under the circumstances of the country. It must not be forgotten that there are two forces at work here: one is the bourgeoisie of Greece and its ossified, entrenched political establishment, which attempts by means of ‘austerity’ to present the Greek people with the bill of its own mismanagement, corruption, and prestige spending. The other force is the creditor classes of northern Europe, the Germans, Dutch, Austrians and so forth. Not only is their credit to the Greek state in peril, but more generally this threatens the position of the credibility of all European states altogether, because of their monetary union. In the final instance, the credibility of a currency stands or falls with the credibility of the issuing state vis-á-vis the creditor classes, most particularly the financial speculators and banks, and vast sums of fictitious capital have already been conjured into existence to prop up the appearance of liquidity among states and banks alike.

But the irony is, as Marx so well understood but even many of the ‘Keynesians’ do not, that the more the capitalist classes of Europe attempt to stave off disaster by further ‘quantitative easing’ and further cheap credit, the worse they make it for themselves in the long run. All this accumulation of fictitious capital only serves in the longer run to further depress the rate of profit. Therefore, those states in which austerity is followed either directly on behalf of the financier class (as in the UK), or indirectly by foreign imposition, as in Greece and to a lesser extent other debtor states of southern Europe, are perfectly following capitalist rationality to its final end-point. Only the destruction of value on a large scale, the failure of many of the national capitalists and much of the credibility of the financial institutions, the destitution and devastation of much of the European population, and the generation of an enormous ‘reserve army of labour’ in the form of mass unemployment, can in the long run restore the rate of profit in value terms.

This implies that any other strategy is a strategy of deception: it will prop up the capitalist institutions of today in appearance, and thereby seem to prevent a freefall in the living standards of middle and working class alike; but in the longer term, it will inhibit further capitalist investment, burden an already low-liquidity system with more debt, and eventually an even greater and more severe crisis will be the consequence. It doesn’t matter how well the post-Keynesians regard the European peoples and their struggle, no matter how good their intent in attempting to stop the vicious and regressive campaigns to maintain the position of a proportionally tiny group of financiers and creditor organizations as myopic as they are self-seeking. If they attempt to tell the Greeks and other suffering peoples that the capitalist order can prevail but without having to also accept its terms and conditions, they are consciously or not deceiving the population as to the true nature of capitalist crisis.

The political consequences of this are dire, because it will work in favour of the decaying social-democratic forces whose strength diminishes by the day, and who can form no secure basis for the future, and it will also encourage those – such as the fascists – who consider the crisis to be a purely contingent phenomenon, the fault of ‘international bankers’, foreign impositions, money crankery, or even immigrants and refugees. To politically confront the consequences of capitalist crisis, we must be honest about what we are facing: capitalism will always return to crisis, no matter how many counter-cyclical measures and state investment programmes are undertaken. If the rate of profit is not restored, instead of papering over the crisis by accumulating further debt and shifting vast sums of value artificially towards the financial institutions and the speculators, the consequences can only be a greater crisis in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, and in the short run a tremendous waste of the people’s money on bailing out insolvent capitalist entities to which they owe nothing.

It is of course understandable that such sentiment has become so widespread. For the latter day fans of laissez-faire and for the lackeys of the financier class the situation is clear enough: where profit rates cannot be maintained, the population must pay and overaccumulated value must be destroyed one way or another until investment once more resumes. The balance within the capitalist class between the interests of industry and of finance in this battle is essentially a political question, and in Europe today it is the financiers who hold the power, especially in Britain. But for many people the situation is in absolute terms not yet dire enough to create a truly revolutionary prospect: the workers of Europe have still too much to lose for that, in particular the older workers who have built up pensions, own houses, and have accumulated all manner of stakes in society in the waning years of the social-democratic consensus. Demographically, this is the largest group. At the same time, it is clear that their position and that of their children is being rapidly undermined by forces outside their control, and this creates a great unrest and a great wave of resentment and sentimental opprobrium.

Much of the protest resulting from this is essentially romantic reactionary and disorganized in nature, involving great numbers of people attempting by sheer anger and indignation to restore a situation of ‘fairness’, ‘democracy’, the ‘welfare state’, and so forth; essentially backward-looking idealizations of the existing political economic order, which no amount of demonstrating or striking will bring back. In Spain, the hundreds of thousands who took the streets even identified themselves as the indignados, each called to the streets by the same justified fear and loathing produced by the current crisis, but all individually seeking a return of the good old times of secure work and fair pay. Such times, if they ever existed, will not return. This crisis heralds the final phase of social-democracy, and it is a losing game for capitalism. This is why no government anywhere has ceded even the slightest demand to these protestors, and why they have been unable to translate their numbers and courage into a political change: they fear damaging the political structure of their societies just as much as they fear its continuation, and therefore rhetoric and moral appeals are their only weapons.

In Greece, the left opposition party SYRIZA is the best expression of this. While it contains a number of serious revolutionary organizations in its ranks, its leadership represents the Greek masses very well indeed – it seeks to do away with the debt burden without doing away with the monetary union, it seeks to oppose austerity without confronting the logic of capital, it wants to do away with the old oligarchy without extra-parliamentary mobilization, and it utterly fails to recognize the looming threat of fascism on the horizon, focused as it is on achieving the impossible and incoherent. This is not to sneer at the Greeks. Indeed, not only has the period of roughly 1980 to 2004 been one of enormous increases in the Greek standard of living and a modernization of the country in technological and prestige terms, but the membership of the European political and economic system has made the Greeks feel safely included in the common European project, has given them hope for the future after the long darkness of dictatorship and Cold War strife, and made it seem like the only way to go was up. This is indeed a bitter awakening for the self-proclaimed ‘cradle of democracy’.

One can argue forever about to which extent the Greek people let themselves be bribed and sung to sleep, their Argus eyes closed by the soothing melodies of road-building, Olympic games, peace with the Turks, and all this without any apparent need for state revenues. What matters is that they are now being made to pay the price for the greatest global crisis since the Great Depression, most of which was none of their making and totally beyond their ken. We must not try to lull the Greeks again with easy tales of Keynesian investment and the return of the drachma solving all the economic problems. That which capital has made can only be unmade with the overcoming of capital’s logic itself. It is well possible the current crisis will resolve itself outside Greece far before this point is reached politically; in that case, all will probably go back to sleep again, and will have an even more rude awakening in 15 years or so. If this does not happen, and the crisis endures without a clear explanation of its causes, its logic, and its consequences, the temptation for masses and bourgeoisie alike to force a solution will become very great. Here, history provides us with but two examples. It shows us either the colonization of Greece, Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and the like by the European creditor powers, impoverishing the masses and inhibiting their political struggles for decades; or the course of the Weimar republic and its inability to overcome the contradictions of that society, after which the revanchist powers forced a ‘final solution’ on their own account. The former was the solution of the 19th century, the latter that of the 20th. It is time for a different solution for our age. The tocsin rings for Greece, and all who wish her well must heed the warning.

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