Ephemeris by Asa Boxer

Norm Sibum is taking a few weeks off from his Ephemeris duties. In his stead, we will be offering a few guest Ephemeris columns. Our first is from Montreal poet Asa Boxer.

The System & the Cerebramantic Dream

The ongoing economic recession has made a great number of people question “The System.” What system exactly are we talking about? Is it the democratic system? Many North Americans for instance insist the people’s interests are not being democratically represented due to disproportionate representation, corporate influence and lobbying. Is it the free market economy? Many in the western world feel that the free market is not free at all, but manipulated by economic giants like the oil industry. Or is it the education system where students feel unattended to, held back and uninspired? I think for most people, it’s a general feeling of malaise regarding one’s prospects of fulfilling one’s potential in the world. It’s not only one system, but the interaction among systems, like the way a democratic government directs the economy and education and education feeds back into policy, etc. In truth, however, it is not so much any given system or its complicity within a network of systems, it is human beings displaying human nature that would manifest whatever the system. The question is how best to manage the human horde.

Marxist windbag and feature-creature Professor Richard Wolff seems to think he knows what’s wrong with the system. Now you have to see Wolff’s silly-putty face because it really is a trip to watch as it morphs, mutates and bends in dramatic sympathy with his immaculately delivered rants; he even gets the catch in the voice, the gruff, the ironic, the body language—all just right. He’s a bizarro inversion of Archie Bunker:

There is one condition under capitalism in which you will get a job: you will have to produce more for your employer than your employer pays you. For those of you who are saying to one another, ‘I’m not going to work for anybody that doesn’t pay me what I’m worth’—you don’t understand this system—because that’s not going to happen. You’re in the wrong country at the wrong time historically. (It’s more likely you’ll be hit by lightning than discover that situation.) You are always going to be ripped off in your job in capitalism because that’s the way the system works.

When I heard this, I cried aloud to my iPad, “No, fuck you, that’s not why I feel ripped off!” I feel ripped off because of… well, a whole lot of things—but in terms of my vocation, I feel ripped off because my field is undervalued—which I believe is more of a cultural issue. I also feel ripped off because my particular skills in my particular field are underrated and hacks who should never have been published have the jobs and consequent sense of fulfillment that I might have otherwise found. But that’s just life, not the system. I mean, that attitude is more a jealous state of mind than an actual problem with the system. If schmoozers and finaglers get ahead, tough, that’s true of all systems. Consequently, considering a communist alternative is just plain asinine. So I don’t really think the system has much to do with our troubles. Anyway, Mr. Wolff is not helping the conversation. It’s not that the above quotation is false, it’s just a very narrow, limiting and unfulfilling perspective: which is clear from his demeanour and tone. Unwittingly, but with every angry twitch in his jiggling body, he makes it clear that what Marxism really amounts to is being jealous of what other people have and then rationalising this pettiness as a problem with the system. It’s about demonising “bosses” or business owners and talking about them as though the whole world were On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando where bosses are Mafiosos who don’t do any work—which is just weird for someone who claims to study the economy. And it’s about revolution. But no revolution will change human nature, only the terms of the contract by which we navigate social exchange.

Wolff’s big mistake is the great mistake of western civilisation: the misapplication of idealism, abstract cerebralism, and Neo-Platonic thinking—what I call cerebramancy. Yes. We can put the whole Frankfurt School to bed. Our downfalls are all owing to the role that abstract thinking plays in our society. Caesar? An idealist. Hitler? An idealist. Il Duce? Another idealist. Find me a tyrant who wasn’t or isn’t. Whether it’s Allah versus Jehovah or Rationalism versus Catholicism or English versus Français, we’re in the realm of elaborately imagined and generalised “truths”—of phantasy, actually. If we consider the notion of Platonic ideas and forms whereby all things physical have an ideal form of themselves existing in the world of ideas from which we draw them, it sounds a lot like God and heaven, doesn’t it?—a perfect world full of perfect things. When in Plato’s Republic we learn of the perfect state, however, hopefully we get uncomfortable. Not many people would be happy under that regime. Although Platonism is a useful tool for psychological and spiritual insight, if it touches politics, it brings only paranoia, surveillance, dissent, blood and horror, like the French Revolution of 1789 that quickly became The Terror of 1793, like the European wars of religion that lasted over a hundred years and the Crusades that preceded them and went on for several hundred years. Calvinist Geneva, The City of God, The New Jerusalem? Bad news. The desire for a Utopia or for any perfect world is the root of all evil. Consider what Dostoyevsky says of Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov (the hero of Crime and Punishment and a man who has committed a coldblooded murder) in the voice of the police inspector Porfiry Petrovitch:

[M]y dear Rodion Romanovitch, you are a man still young, so to say, in your first youth and so you put intellect above everything, like all young people. Playful wit and abstract arguments fascinate you and that’s for all the world like the old Austrian Hofkriegsrath, as far as I can judge of military matters, that is: on paper they’d beaten Napoleon and taken him prisoner, and there in their study they’d worked it all out in the cleverest fashion, but look you, General Mack surrendered with all his army, he-he-he!

So where does that leave us? I mean almost any method of government and economic management needs to be imagined first. We can’t just give up and say revolution is useless. After all, we need some serious bloodshed every second generation at least, otherwise, let’s face it, we’d be overrun with sissies. But in all seriousness, surely social betterment and striving for progress are valuable pursuits. And surely also a certain pragmatism regarding human nature and human behaviour, guided by compassion, ought to lead us toward greater emancipation to pursue our callings and support the work of others. I’m not happy either with a world that values everything economically and sees humanity as a natural resource and schooling as a processing plant for the rat race. It bothers me to see the “horse race” as I call it at the back of The Economist where all the countries are ranked according to their weekly GDP output. “Why are we in such desperate haste to succeed?” as Henry David Throreau put it. We’re in a real rush, but where are we headed? We’re running a world to no end other than production and consumption. And this meaninglessness supplants all values till money is the only value. We exist and tolerate each other only to achieve an annual increase of some marginal percentage or everything’ll go bust because we’re all banking on imaginary money we haven’t yet earned—a dumb idea borne of more bunk cerebramancy. And yet apparently this is the best way to combat world poverty and hunger. For the privileged like ourselves the sheer variety produced by the freedom to invent products and start businesses is exhilarating. If there’s a need, the market responds. Problems arise when corporations determine or create the need, like pharmaceutical companies involved in pathologising every element of human behaviour and labelling them as disorders requiring medication. I suppose they’re pursuing the ideal human condition: more evil. Same trouble with Monsanto, trying to create the perfect food, not according to human taste, but according to market “needs.” But that has little to do with the system. I mean any other system would allow for some other horrible mutation of human indecency to emerge in accordance with the shape of the social contract in play. I’m afraid we’re stuck with the Platonic form of The System for the foreseeable future.

If you want to know what’s wrong with the current regime, here’s a mouthful from Baron de Montesquieu, pretty much the genius who designed the system:

3. Of the Principle of Democracy. There is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government. The force of laws in one, and the prince’s arm in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole. But in a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue.

What I have here advanced is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of historians, and is extremely agreeable to the nature of things. For it is clear that in a monarchy, where he who commands the execution of the laws generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where the person entrusted with the execution of the laws is sensible of his being subject to their direction.

Clear is it also that a monarch who, through bad advice or indolence, ceases to enforce the execution of the laws, may easily repair the evil; he has only to follow other advice; or to shake off this indolence. But when, in a popular government, there is a suspension of the laws, as this can proceed only from the corruption of the republic, the state is certainly undone.

A very droll spectacle it was in the last century to behold the impotent efforts of the English towards the establishment of democracy. As they who had a share in the direction of public affairs were void of virtue; as their ambition was inflamed by the success of the most daring of their members; as the prevailing parties were successively animated by the spirit of faction, the government was continually changing: the people, amazed at so many revolutions, in vain attempted to erect a commonwealth. At length, when the country had undergone the most violent shocks, they were obliged to have recourse to the very government which they had so wantonly proscribed.

When Sylla thought of restoring Rome to her liberty, this unhappy city was incapable of receiving that blessing. She had only the feeble remains of virtue, which were continually diminishing. Instead of being roused from her lethargy by Cæsar, Tiberius, Caius Claudius, Nero, and Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her aim was at the tyrant, not at the tyranny.

The politic Greeks, who lived under a popular government, knew no other support than virtue. The modern inhabitants of that country are entirely taken up with manufacture, commerce, finances, opulence, and luxury.

When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free while under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigour; that which was a rule of action he styles constraint; and to precaution he gives the name of fear. Frugality, and not the thirst of gain, now passes for avarice. Formerly the wealth of individuals constituted the public treasure; but now this has become the patrimony of private persons. The members of the commonwealth riot on the public spoils, and its strength is only the power of a few, and the licence of many.

If I may summarise for our purposes: a democracy places the onus of moral responsibility on the individual. If the individual blames the system, he misunderstands the contract. It is his prerogative and moral duty to act within the system to effect change, not to rail in anger against it as though he had no role. Popular violence is more justified under a monarchy or tyranny because the people have no other voice or influence. The genius of a democracy is how it can absorb revolution through popular election. At the moment, our society is the one without virtue portrayed in the final paragraph above. I think for virtue to exist, a society needs a vision toward which the whole can work. Right now, that vision feels empty, uninspired and uninspiring. This is because the cultural historical heritage that brought this civilisation about is not being handed down, and what is being handed down (and most discussed) in its place are its anachronistic shortcomings, instilling shame and guilt in people instead of something to work with and toward. (I say “anachronistic” because we are in a period in which we judge past societies based on present realities and ideas of morality.) If people had some sense of how many generations of people it took to get us this far, they might feel more inspired to play a virtuous and responsible role in its continuing history.