“You’re a mentalist!”

- Alan Partridge

An article on the Guardian’s ‘Cif Green’ section today actually makes the claim that:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

I would like to dispute this, if I may, and in doing so discuss further the rise of the group I would like to call the Environ-Mentalists; those who believe that our current industrial civilisation has doomed itself and all that’s left is to sing sad songs in the dark, like a race of angst-ridden teenagers.

Let’s first look at the land area hunter-gather tribes require to provide nutrition. This study of a tribe living the tropical rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo appears to indicate that the maximum this lush & bountiful environment can sustain is a population density of one person per square kilometre – and this is factoring in a certain amount of agriculture. Making the very charitable assumption that every part of Earth is equally able to support hunter-gatherer humans, a land area of 148,300,000 square kilometres implies that 97.5% of the current human population of 6 billion would have to die to make this ‘dream’ a reality. It’s good to know that Caroline Wickham-Jones appears to view slaughter beyond nightmares with such casual disregard.

To be fair, I didn’t supply the entire quote:

“Of course we could solve the problems of today if we reverted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but global populations and changed circumstances make that impossible.”

Which does make clear that she doesn’t believe we should necessarily slaughter almost everyone on the planet, merely that the ‘changed circumstances’ that allowed that population to come about are an irritation in this sense.

But what are those changed circumstances?

“Over time, we have seen that economies of scale can be false economies; increasing specialisation can be loss of wisdom; industry can reduce ability.”

This woman is an archaeologist who believes that specialisation causes ‘wisdom’ to be lost. Just gape in astonishment at that statement; and ponder what ‘wisdom’ was lost when we stopped living in caves.

The Dark Mountain Project

Wickham-Jones isn’t the only one who believes that our pesky industrial civilisation is holding us back from running through the trees dancing and singing; we also have the astonishing chaps at the Dark Mountain Project who – honestly – believe that a civilisation isn’t defined by the machines they use or the goods they produce, but rather by the myths and stories associated with them. They’re trying to start what they term an Uncivilisation, which aims to be a collective of writers, artists & thinkers who will preserve these myths through the disruption and collapse of climate change. It’s all wonderfully romantic, but it contains a danger that the movement’s ostensible leader demonstrates in this article. His call for a return to the deep green of the older ecology movement is very enticing, but ultimately leads to the same conclusions as Wickham-Jones: billions must die to make it a reality.

On the other side, you have the anti-environmental ludicrousnessesses like James Delingpole, who are so wedded to such an individualistic epistemology that they’re willing to sacrifice science on its altar. Caught between the extremes of misanthropy and misology are the rest of us, whom I’m going to call the Industrial Environmentalists.  This includes the likes of George Monbiot (despite his recent paen of despair). We believe that humans do impact on the planet, on its atmosphere and on ecosystems – but that this can be overcome, not by giving up civilisation but by using the ingenuity that gave rise to it in the first place. We believe that ecological damage and global warming are major concerns – but concerns we can overcome through the application of reason and industry. And, if possible, we’d like both extremes of the debate to start talking to each other rather than us, so we can get on with saving the planet and our civilisation while they cancel each other out.

Atlas Blogged #24: Anti-soap

September 29, 2010

Part 24 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 24: Anti-Life

James Taggart is growing bored of parties; at least parties in which he doesn’t impress people. He celebrates the news that d’Anconia copper is to be nationalised by going home and lashing out at his wife, Cherryl. Cherryl married James because she believed he was one of Rand’s titans of industry, and has only just discovered that Dagny is in fact doing all the work. She runs out of the house following her fight with James, and goes to confess all to Dagny.

Dagny gives her a Randian spiel about charity being the opposite of justice and so on, which Cherryl laps up. Meanwhile, Lillian has turned up at the Taggart household, and after trading accusations of mutual uselessness with James, sleeps with him as a ‘celebration of impotence’.

Not quite sure how that works.

Cherryl returns and discovers the couple en flagrante, or at least realises pretty quickly (I can’t bear to read this rubbish chapter again to discover the exact plot point), and has it out with James. He seemingly wants her to provide him with Rand’s Sanction of the Victim; to mooch off her soul by saying he’s a worthwhile chap, even though he’s not. He uses her failure to subjugate herself in that manner as an excuse for his adultery.

Cherryl kills herself, after running out of the house and lamenting on the dreadful state of the world such that it contains men like James Taggart.

Analysis

Pathetic people do pathetic things; Taggart is a case in point. The Cherryl subplot seems intended to do nothing more than demonstrate that James is a useless self-interested twat, despite his protestations to the contrary. We already knew this, so I can only presume that what we’re seeing here is Rand’s justification for her dumping of an ex-boyfriend, and why she wasn’t a horrible bitch to do so.

Part 25 is here.

Part 23 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 23: Anti-Greed

Rand really hates Government scientists; they’re people who don’t put their brains into making profits! Don’t worry, in AtlasWorld they get their comeuppance in the form of Dr Stadler, who in this chapter sees his theories used to make a ‘terrible’ weapon called Project X.

Project X is a kind of sonic gun that weakens connections between some pretty bloody fundamental things, because it causes anything it’s pointed at to quiver, die and then dissolve. I use ‘gun’ loosely; it’s more a speaker system built into a building. Yes, Rand’s totemification of the perversion of science is a weapon system that can’t move. It can vaporise anything within a hundred mile radius of itself, but if you’re outside that area you’re fine. Be sure to check your local council’s planning applications regularly, in case anyone wants to build a stationary doomsday device near your area.

Skipping over the stupidity of this device, it’s Rand’s ‘metaphor’ for Einstein’s work leading to the atomic bomb, which at least you could move about. Stadler attends a demonstration of this device and is forced to endorse it under threat of his funding being withdrawn, his earlier commitment to the truth seemingly vanishing because he suckled at the teat of the State that one time, man.

Dagny has returned to New York, where everything has of course fallen apart in her absence. The Government of Strawmen has announced the Railway Unification Plan, which is a ridiculous quasi-nationalisation initiative involving profit pooling and reallocation by the state. Dagny gets all angry about it.

Rearden’s wife, Lillian, demands that Dagny put on an appearance on a radio show endorsing this new economic plan. She threatens to reveal to the world that she’s been a sordid little wife-stealer (or words to that effect) if she doesn’t. This threat had previously made Rearden sign over his patent Rearden Metal to the state. Dagny being a Mary Sue of unbelievable will, naturally goes on air and talks about how she really enjoyed having sex with Rearden. The past tense is important; she’s now in love with John Galt since meeting the Libertarian Messiah in Galt’s Gulch.

Rearden already knows he’s lost her, and is perfectly fine with it. Because he’s being entirely rational about love, you see, and if she now loves someone else he clearly couldn’t have had her love in the first place. The thought that Dagny might be a fickle cow and has passed him up for someone better never enters his head; the moral of the story being that if a girl gives you up for someone ‘objectively’ better you should be perfectly happy with that. Remember, Rand’s version of reason involves the worship of productivity above all, so the emotions of the lesser don’t count.

Analysis

I find the book increasingly hilarious. Rand’s dreadful avatars of force and compulsion have devised the most stupid weapon system ever as a means of control, and men aren’t allowed to get upset if she changes her mind about them. There is, of course, no chance whatsoever that the latter may possibly reflect some event in her own life.

Part 24 is here.

I don’t normally defend property speculators, but there’s an important concern that Vince’s endorsement of a land value tax in his speech fails to address. It’s the corollary of the little old lady argument; that LVT is unfair because it could potentially force out a little old lady who lives in a house that’s been rising in price over her lifetime owing to factors outside her control. That can be mitigated if the tax is implemented in a progressive (in the technical, non-wanky sense) way, but there’s another objection which is less endearing but still important.

Say you own a plot of land on the outskirts of the city. As the city expands, and development around your plot of land increases, the value of your land – and the tax you pay on it – will also rise. Say you decide to cash in by building houses on that land. You apply for planning permission, only to be refused on the grounds of residential amenity for the people already living there. Your tax will continue to rise, but you won’t be able to profit from your land, and you certainly won’t be able to sell a piece of land that can only ever represent a financial drain.

I’m sure many won’t weep for property speculators, but it doesn’t stop that from being unfair. LVT should work hand in hand with planning reform, otherwise it’ll be illiberal.

So, ‘aggressive atheists’ are spoiling all the Pope’s fun, the media are terrifying small girls in the name of paedophilia, and Mr Benedict doesn’t know that Hitler was a Roman Catholic. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was a Papacyphobe fest. If you did know better, you’d know that the reaction to his visit has all the signs of a Britain that’s always found excessive seriousness hilarious and delights in poking holes in speeches at the smallest slip of the tongue; I would like to believe Oscar Wilde would be proud of our reaction to the visit of the second-to-last pope.

But beneath the general comedy, there’s a serious charge to be answered:

“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”

One could attribute this to many things, from the closure of Catholic adoption agencies that would not comply with equal-rights legislation, or more flippantly the lack of tolerance shown by law enforcement agencies to priests who dabble in terrorism. However, what I would argue ‘cultural expressions’ should have referred to is not what you might call the ‘collision’ issues of abortion and homosexuality, but rather the displacement of cultural roles for the church by the secular state, and more broadly by civil society.

The power of the church – and any organised religion – is not derived from its interpretation of divine revelation or its ability to intercede with the deity, but rather its function as society’s gatekeeper. Up until 1837, marriage in England & Wales was extremely difficult without the approval of the Church. Birth certificates – or rather, registrations of baptism – were performed by the Church until the same year, when state birth certification was mandated. Until then, the legal rights associated with marriage and being a registered citizen were entirely in the hands of the Church. In practice, this implies that anyone known to be unChristian would have great difficulty in getting married (Gretna Green notwithstanding), and would have children with no official status. The moral requirements of Christianity were a necessity for those seeking to access legal rights. Regardless of the reality of your faith, church attendance and observation of morals would’ve been a practical necessity. This is reflected in the contemporary practice of young parents attending church in order to get their children into a faith school, irrespective of their actual beliefs.

Quite apart from legal rights, rejection of Christianity had strong social consequences – and not simply the obvious one of ostracisation. A significant portion of discourse relies on a shared cultural background in order to foster a sense of shared identity. It’s difficult to imagine the impact of access to multiple types of metaphor and symbolism on a society in which the key source of metaphor was the Bible; one can get a sense of how it must’ve been by visiting fundamentalist Christian forums. The power of Satan assumes a place that paedophilia has in the editorial narrative of tabloid newspapers. Shared totems and symbols have a vital place in human discourse; at the most obvious level these are in-jokes amongst groups of friends, but at the broader level they encompass shared modes of explanation and understanding, as well as signifiers of identity.

To take a pop-cultural example: we went to see the Scott Pilgrim movie last week, largely as a result of my girlfriend’s affection for Michael Sera. Its director, Edgar Wright, has a deep and abiding love of squeezing as many geek references into his work as possible; the result being nearly impenetrable to the uninformed. If you weren’t familiar with video games, you’d have little understanding why statistics referring to Scott’s power level keep flashing up on screen.

Now transfer that to a society in which the prime source of totems and metaphor is the Church and the Bible, and you’ll begin to see the impossibility of functioning in that society without a strong understanding of its cultural expressions. Those signifiers are controlled by the Church, and they imply certain types of morality.

The true threat to the Catholic Church comes not from homosexuality or atheism per se, but rather the proliferation of cultural expressions and social ceremonies that Europe has witnessed since the Enlightenment. People within my social circle have variously opted for Welcoming Ceremonies, Birth Days – and baptisms – as ways of introducing their children to the community. The moral authority the Church used to have was derived from their social & symbolic monopoly on Western thought and deed, and that has been shattered. We live in what to me is a glorious liberal society in which one is free to celebrate and mark the events of one’s life in whichever way one chooses. The Church can be a part of that; it is just reduced to one choice amongst many. It must compete in the marketplace of social choice if it wishes to regain its former authority – something that this Pope has failed to recognise.

…for property, that is, and it’s one that’s illustrated by his 10-minute rule bill that’s he’s speaking to as I write this. The idea is that the law should be changed to prevent banks from lending out any money you deposit with them without your consent, as legally when you deposit any funds they become the bank’s money. This means that banks can lend out your money even if they don’t have enough money to pay you back. Under Carswell’s scheme, this would be changed to banks being required to ask you if they could lend out your money, and otherwise merely holding on deposit until you collect it.

This notion is called ‘honest money’ and is derived from the work of the Cobden Centre, a libertarian think-tank. And it stands in astonishing contradiction to the rest of libertarian thought; which revolves around the idea that the private sector always knows best and that Government should stay out the interests of private concerns as much as possible. This is a clear state intervention in the banking market, ostensibly on the side of the little guy who’s being taken advantage of by these terrible, terrible banks.

The problem is that banks are a business. They do what they do for profit. Under Carswell’s scheme, say you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance and are receiving £60 per week. Thanks to the largely free banking system we have in this country, you could immediately deposit that in a bank without incurring any cost. However, under Carswell’s scheme, the bank would incur a cost for taking your money (staff time, processing etc.) but be unable to make a profit on it unless you consented to allow them to lend it out. Why on earth, in that case, would the bank want to handle your money? They’d either charge you a handling fee or simply refuse to take deposits from those who want to retain full rights over their money. In practice, therefore, the £60 would become perhaps £58 per week, unless you gave up your property rights in a way which seems anathema to Carswell.

The upshot is that the little guy would be in the same situation as he is now, as the least well-off can’t afford a handling fee for the use of banks. They’d either be excluded from the financial system altogether or give up their rights. This is a logical consequence of banks being profit-making entities.

This bill seems to be the result of the fetishisation of property rights – the near-worship of property itself – to the point where they overwhelm the interests of the least well-off. But as I’ve said before, that’s what libertarianism is all about.

Part 22 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 22: The Utopia of Greed

Dagny is having a lovely time in the valley of the lost industrialists, but her compulsion to build railways makes her decide to head back to the world in an effort to save it, despite the other industrialists pointing out that the plebs outside the valley still haven’t learned their lesson and that she’s only helping them. She also develops a massive crush on the libertarian messiah, John Galt.

That’s pretty much the plot of this chapter, but as the title of the post rather gives away, there’s a useful illustration of the contradictions not simply in Rand’s philosophy but within her plotline itself. In the previous chapter, Galt borrows the car of his good friend Midas Mulligan – but given this is the ‘utopia of greed’, Mulligan can’t simply lend him the car, as nothing can be given, so Galt has to pay 25 cents per day to borrow it.

Nothing can be given without payment in kind – there’s a rather unpleasant reference to the ‘wives’ in the valley paying their way in the oldest way possible. However, Rand fails to acknowledge the impact this has on children. There are a couple of children in this chapter – their mother refers to them as ‘her work’ – but no reference to the fact that the inability of a baby to pay for milk means that it must clearly be left to die. If you can’t give without reward, how can you look after children? ‘Social convention’ clearly can’t be used to define when a child becomes an adult and thus liable for this morality; such convention runs counter to everything Rand’s been avowing for the last thousand pages. It’s therefore clear than any pure libertarian society wouldn’t last beyond seventy years. A mother’s compassion is the key the survival of the human race; and Rand would seek to make it an evil.

Part 23 is here.

Part 21 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 21: Atlantis

Dagny is rescued from the wreckage of her aircraft by – drum roll – John Galt, the inventor of the static engine and the Destroyer she’s been pursuing all this time.  Of course, he’s a paradigm of a man, handsome, gifted, and utterly free of guilt over his talents. Galt’s Gulch, the valley in which Dagny has landed, is home to all the titans who retired from the world, and Dagny meets old friends like Ellis Wyatt and Kenneth Dannager.

The premise behind the titan’s retreat is that of a strike of minds; what Rand claims to be the motivating force behind the world. Galt has been systemically persuading these minds to strike against the ‘looters’ and ‘moochers’ who refuse to engage in honest trade or productive work. Then they’ll see who they really need, runs the theory.

The obvious problem with Galt’s strike is something I’ve identified before: it only works in a Platonic world in which people are strongly divided by their qualities, rather than the real world in which talent and mindfulness are spread across the population. Titans going on strike in the real world just results in their deputies taking over – no company is reliant on any one man, except at the lowest end of the scale.

Analysis

Bizarrely, the strongest clue to Rand’s theocratic elitism comes from a section in which the titans are talking individually about what caused them to go on strike, specifically the story of Dagny’s favourite composer, Richard Halley:

“I saw the impertinent malice of mediocrity boastfully holding up its own emptiness as an abyss to be filled by the bodies of its betters.”

Halley argues that the ‘looters-in-spirit’ extract the value from his music on the back of years of sneering at him because they did not understand it, only rising to acclaim his success when it is evident. He did not write his music for such as those, and so retreated from the world.

The implication here is subtle, but is echoed elsewhere in the book: commerce is only worthwhile with those who live up to Rand’s moral standards.

That’s right: people aren’t worthy to even be customers unless they sign up to Rand’s worshipping of talent. Otherwise they’re still looters or moochers, wresting one’s essence from one’s product.

Part 22 is here.

Referring to The Art of War may seem rather pretentious, but there’s some ancient wisdom in there that has bearing on the TUC’s position today:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

What is the most advantageous grounds on which the Tories could position political debate? Assuming that, as their opponents would claim, their real aim is always to maintain the privileged position of the rich ruling classes, on what grounds would you want contemporary political debate to be held?

You certainly wouldn’t want to talk about how the proceeds of economic growth have been increasingly distributed entirely unfairly, with the overwhelming majority going to the better off. That might give people crazy ideas about a fairer distribution of wealth within society, or that perhaps economic growth per se only seems to work out well for a minority of the population. You certainly wouldn’t want to talk about Labour’s greatest failure, which was simulating rising living standards for the less well off by making it easier for them to access credit, rather than actually raising their wages.

Instead, you’d want to create a battle about something most of the public agree with you about. You’d want your greatest ideological adversaries to waste their strength and their support in opposing your gamble on cutting public spending, ensuring that in the event private demand doesn’t pick up, you’ll have someone to blame. You’d want, in fact, to use your opponent’s strength and inclinations against them.

I’ll leave you with another quote from the ancient master:

“Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.”

Part 20 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 20: The Sign of the Dollar

Dagny is on her way to Colorado, attempting to beat The Destroyer (chap who’s been convincing all these businessmen to give up and take a holiday) to the scientist she employed to decipher the workings of the static engine. She’s thinking lots of deep, melancholy thoughts about the fate of civilisation, so she invites a tramp to share dinner with her.

In an astonishing coincidence, the tramp turns out to have been working in the factory in which Dagny found the static engine when the proto-commies took over. He expands on the tale, because there’s nothing like beating a strawman again to really solidify your point. Incidentally, the one chap to objected to the plan (and is, therefore, most likely the engineer who came up with the static engine) is called John Galt. Whatever can have become of such a proud upstanding young man of industry, I wonder, especially as we’re told he announced his mission to stop socialism once and for all.

I’ll go back to Rand’s straw commies in a second. The train stops in the middle of nowhere, the crew having abandoned the train because they’re being forced to work for other people rather than themselves. Dagny sets off to find a trackside phone to call for another train. Coincidentally she happens on an airfield, and flies to a field in Colorado, from which the scientist who’s been working on the static engine has just taken off in the company of a man Dagny presumes to be The Destroyer.

Dagny pursues in her plane, following it into the wilderness when all of a sudden it vanishes into a seemingly empty rock valley. She flies into it, when suddenly the seemingly solid valley floor disappears, a green grass field is revealed and her engine cuts out. She desperately tries to avoid a crash.

The tension!

Analysis

I’m no fan of communism; barely even a fan of socialism, but Rand’s characterisation of it here is rather unfair. She interprets the phrase ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ as the sum total of communist thought, neglecting the role that workers’ councils are meant to play in ensuring that surplus value is divided fairly. In Rand’s fake communist system, need and ability is determined by a single person, with sham votes by the workers on such things.

She appears unable to conceive of a system by which ability is determined, if not by central diktat or by the marketplace. Instead, ‘mooching’ becomes the order of the day – one’s need is determined by how effectively one can give an emotive display of one’s miseries. Ability is accorded the same, with any displays of such penalised by harder work. Rand appears to be unable to accord to her ideological opponents even the basics of common sense. Even in Stalinist Russia, manufacturers were penalised for failing to reach their targets, rather than the other way round. It fails as an economic system because targets discourage initiative and the centre can never have enough information to micromanage productivity – but to claim that initiative and ability is actively penalised is simply false.

Rand fails the most basic test of debating – according to your opponent a reasonable position. I can see how someone might take her ideology at face value – certainly, its religious simplicity is as attractive as, well, a religion – but clearly not understanding why her opponents believe what they do is just incompetent.

Part 20 is here.

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