Wednesday, 1 December 2010

That Is So Retro

For all of my life I have been accused of being a man out of time.  I used to believe that, but then I grew up, and I no longer hold to that notion.  Sure, I have certain dated preferences and styles, but I am a man of my age for better or worse.  You see, I am a Modern.  I’m not a post-modern or a pre-modern.   My time is now.
There are those who long for another time.  Not just another time or by-gone era, rather a by-gone age -- the most horrific, vile, and terrible age in human history known as the Middle-Ages.  You might ask why anyone would long for such a thing.  I have a theory about that.
The human being’s primary survival skill is reason.  But unlike other creatures we have to learn our skill with each generation.  Reason is not given to us by nature as tooth and claw is given to the wilder inhabitants of this planet.  The capacity for rational thought is not a lump sum, but rather comes in degrees.  Those of high degrees we might call enlightened, while those of low degrees we call savages.    The savage believes his rituals make the sun rise while the enlightened plot the planets’ course in the heavens.
Savagery comes natural to us humans.  Enlightenment takes work.  So despite reason being our natural survival skill, it is in the nature of man to be savage.  Without constant vigilance we will tumble from the heights of the Modern and into the abyss of the Pre-modern.
What makes a civilization enlightened or savage is really just a question of numbers.  The more enlightened people there are, the higher these Atlas’s can hold civilization aloft, the fewer the number, the less enlightenment.  A group of ignorant savages can easily burn the one rational man at the stake.  A certain ratio needs to be maintained.
It bothers me that one of the definitions for Romantic is an idealistic disconnection from reality.  Romanticism is more of a hyper-reality, or even a glorification of reality.  But I must admit, in many ways this definition is a fair cop.  In their pastiche of the Middle-Ages they rightly extolled the virtues imposed on their literary nobles, but wrongly ignored the peasants and their relationship to the nobles.
There are a few key aspects of feudal life worth noting here.  There is the source of political power, the role of the peasants, and the idea of the good king or noble.
So how did you become king?  You were either given it by your father or you took it from someone else.  What did you take?  The kingship, yes, but more importantly you took the land.  The king was the great landlord.  He owned everything.  From the land comes the most valuable commodity in the world – food.  Whoever could feed the most thugs got to be king.
There is one undeniable fact about land.  It is finite.  Property ownership can be a zero sum game.  If one guy owns all the land, then there is no more land to be owned.  Therefore the king or his agents, thugs, nobles, or whatever you choose to call them, made the rules.  From this wealth, the sole ownership of property and the production from it, the king wielded political power enforced by the hired swords he fed.
This political and economic monopoly was maintained by laws that forbade nobles from selling or giving away their lands.  Everything went to the eldest son.  This kept the nobles, as king’s agents, in control of the land and prevented any upstart peasants from competing with them.
As for the peasants, they were not slaves.  They were something worse.  It is in a master’s self interests to keep his slave healthy and working.  It’s like caring for your car.  The feudal master had no such compulsion.  The serf was neither free nor a slave.  He was just part of the land.  They did not even have the right to be property.  If they did not produce for the nobility, they died.  Simple as that.  The king had his thugs, but they lived far away.  The immediate threat was the local noble.  So the peasant came to love the distant king and hate the local law enforcer.
Finally, what made a good king?  He was the one who used his wealth and power to benefit the lives of his people.  He was a sort of father figure who provided protection for his people, law, order, and supported good causes.
Let’s be honest here.  The Middle-Ages was a nightmare age.  The institutional of feudalism should be hated with the same fervour as we despise slavery.  It was an age of the savage warlord kings and nobles and the ignorant peasant.
From this dark period came the great rebirth and upon that beginning came the Enlightenment.  Both of these ages form the foundation of the Modern and with modernity came a new way of seeing things.  Adam Smith demonstrated that wealth is found in production and trading in goods and services and not the land.  With the rise of the middle-class, wealth and political power was redistributed.  No longer does wealth automatically confer political power.  The individual became free to make his own choices for good or ill and reap what he has sown with full responsibility for both.  Private property came to be seen as not simply land but also goods, in other words, capital.
Understanding these natural systems requires reason.  Just as the sun appears to revolve around the Earth, but does not, so too did the Enlightenment lift the veil of perception to show the truth behind economic, political, and social forces.  But this lantern is not self-sustaining.  It must be preserved, tended to, and maintained.  Otherwise it will fade and the darkness will return.
So let’s take another look at feudalism.  All property belongs to the king.  Technically, this is still the case in the United Kingdom.  Does the monarch rule these lands?  Yes, but the responsibility has been transferred to Parliament.
So when a Socialist or Communist tells you that all property is theft, they are on the one hand acknowledging the medieval notion that all property belongs to the king because he or his ancestors  took it.  But then these socialists advocate surrendering that “stolen” property to the state, which they call “the people”, but it is actually the political powers and therefore just another form of king.  
This is justified in a social democracy because the leader is elected for a set term, so unlike the king it is not actually his land, it belong to his title.  When the people of Britain go to the ballot box, they are voting for whoever the political parties choose to put forward as their candidate for their area.  Whichever party gets the most seats in Parliament gets to rule the country and the leader of the party, chosen by the party, gets to be prime minister.  Does that sound like “the people” to you or just another band of ruling thugs?
Socialism and central planning advocates the reunification of wealth and political power which was a key feature of feudal society.  Today, wealth and political power are not the same.  Recent history is filled with examples of men who tried to convert wealth into political power but failed.  Whereas men of modest economic means were still able to increase the political power they possessed.
An interesting phenomenon we see operating particularly in America is Corporatism, or Crony Capitalism.   This is where large corporations use their wealth to form a cabal with the political leaders.  Again we see the merger of wealth and political power.   This alliance serves two purposes for the corporation, one is as a means to by-pass government regulation and the other is to decrease competition.  In some instances there is a by-product, which is increased revenue from high priced goods and services due to legislated price fixing.
The primary purpose of business is to increase revenue, which it accomplishes by trading goods and/or services in free voluntary exchange for money.  This is not the same as political motivations.  Some psychological studies have found that politicians are driven by ego and narcissism.  History and experience seems to bear this out.  It was by playing on the egos of the aristocracy that the medieval merchants bought their freedom and contributed to the end of feudalism, and likewise today do businesses manipulate the egos of politicians, though not necessarily in the cause of freedom.
If you see land as wealth, then you see the zero sum game expressed by socialist, but that is medieval thinking.  Wealth is production, therefore it is expandable.  There is always more.  One man getting richer does not mean someone else is getting poorer.
Just as the medieval nobles kept a monopoly on the land and therefore the production and therefore the wealth, so too does government maintain monopolies in areas of education and some aspects of transportation.  In a Socialist system, the government monopolizes what V.I. Lenin called the commanding heights of industry.  This represents a complete control over production.  Where does this power go to?  To the state and by state I mean the people in the political ruling class.
As for the peasant, their place was to produce or die.  Our situation is not so harsh.  However, what do you call a system in which the average worker surrenders three to four month’s labour and production to the State?  According to various groups, such as The Taxpayer’s Alliance, this is the current state of affairs.  There are the obvious taxes, such as income, property, and sales taxes, but there are hidden taxes as well.
When a business is taxed, this tax is figured into the operating costs of the business and passed on to consumers in the form of higher priced goods and services.  The same holds true for increased costs due to government regulations.  Then there is inflation.  When the government prints money or lowers interest rates this increases the money supply which eventually increases the cost the goods and services.  The money in your pocket is now devalued.  It is an invisible tax.  The US dollar has lost over 90% of its value over nearly 100 years.  Prior to 1912 it lost almost none.  I wonder how much of their production the serfs were allowed to keep.
We also see the idea of the good king being transferred to good government.  A good government is viewed as one that provides services to the people paid for from government coffers without any consideration as to where that money came from.  At least the good king was throwing his own gold coins at the peasant’s feet.
What we are seeing today is people advocating a return to feudalism.  They debate topics with points that are perfectly applicable to a simple, savage, medieval worldview.  For them it is as if the Modern world never came into existence.  They lack the most basic understanding of modern political, economic, and social thought.  And yet they claim the moral high ground while calling for a state worse than slavery.
But this is not the only area of life where we see this.   Doctor Patrick Moore is one of the founders of Greenpeace.  Originally, the organisation was more concerned with conservation than environmentalism.  He tells the story of how he came to leave the very organisation he co-founded.  Members wanted to start a campaign to ban chlorine.  As a scientist, Moore’s only response was that you cannot ban an element, it’s an idiotic notion.
We see in our civilization the ever increasing rise in this pre-modern mindset.  People favour superstition to science, wish-fulfilment to economics, collectivism to individualism and serfdom to freedom.
One of the greatest frustrations I face in my day job is this peasant mentality.  For those of us in the West, we are thousands of years removed from the Stone Age.  So for us it is distant history.  But among us are an increasing number of individuals who are but a stone’s throw of a generation or two from it.  They never inherited the lantern of enlightenment or learned to make one themselves, but simply stood in its glow.  Then there are those who are inheritors, but have rejected it as something beyond their ability to understand and look to others to take care of them.  I actually had someone once say to me, “I’m not a reader” as if literacy was a lifestyle choice.
There are plenty of nice middle-class words for it.  Call it a return to nature, alternative medicine, New Age religion, neo-tribalism, even multiculturalism.  On the political front we can call it socialism or central planning.  However, if you look at these concepts point for point what we find is the call for a return to the nightmare of the Middle Ages, a time before industrialisation, modern medicine, modern scientific understanding, freedom, and individualism.  A time when the people judged good government according to the quality and quantity of hand-outs they received.
My dear reader, take a moment and get some perspective here.  Look through the veneer of our modern world.  If I was to write a story in which a character visits an astrologer to discuss her romantic prospects and then goes to the local wise woman to purchase herbs, would you know if my story in set in 1010 or 2010?
Then there is this incident last year in Detroit, Michigan where thousands of people queued-up to get what they thought was a share of the US stimulus money.  Here is a transcript from local news reporter, Ken Rogulski’s story.

ROGULSKI: Why are you here?

WOMAN #1: To get some money.

ROGULSKI: What kind of money?

WOMAN #1: Obama money.

ROGULSKI: Where's it coming from?

WOMAN #1: Obama.

ROGULSKI: And where did Obama get it?

WOMAN #1: I don't know, his stash. I don't know. (laughter) I don't know where he got it from, but he givin' it to us, to help us.

WOMAN #2: And we love him.

WOMAN #1: We love him. That's why we voted for him!

WOMEN: (chanting) Obama! Obama! Obama! (laughing)


ROGULSKI:  Did you get an application to fill out yet?

WOMAN:  I sure did.  And I filled it out, and I am waiting to see what the results are going to be.

ROGULSKI:  Will you know today how much money you're getting?

WOMAN:  No, I won't, but I'm waiting for a phone call.

ROGULSKI:  Where's the money coming from?

WOMAN:  I believe it's coming from the City of Detroit or the state.

ROGULSKI:  Where did they get it from?

WOMAN:  Some funds that was forgiven (sic) by Obama.

ROGULSKI:  And where did Obama get the funds?

WOMAN:  Obama getting the funds from... Ummm, I have no idea, to tell you the truth.  He's the president.

ROGULSKI:  In downtown Detroit, Ken Rogulski, WJR News.
They are like peasant waiting for the king to throw coins at their feet, but these coins are not the President’s personal stash.  These are taxes taken from ordinary, hard working citizens by force, and yet the complexity of this issue is beyond the ability of these peasants to understand.
I use the word peasant quite a bit here and I realised that I have yet to define exactly what I mean by that.  Psychologists have classified what they call the slave mind or slave mentality.  It is a state when the person becomes completely incapable of thinking or acting for themselves.  The peasant mind is similar. 
With freedom comes responsibility and consequence.  Your first responsibility is to yourself, then to those directly connected to you, and then those indirectly connected to you.  So you might say, first yourself, then family and friends, and then community, state, nation, and humanity.  This requires a certain level of reason and imagination to understand how all of this fits together.  The peasant lacks this level of abstract thought.
The peasant is not a slave, but neither is he entirely free.  He is simply part of the system.  A nameless, faceless, part of the collective described in political rhetoric as “the poor”, “the exploited”, or “the people”.  In lighter times he is driven by the pursuit of immediate pleasures and in darker times he is driven by fear and paranoia and never truly comprehending where all this comes from.  It’s like when a child asks a parent “why is the sky blue” and the parent answers, “Because God made it that way.”
One of humanity’s greatest leaps forward was when he realised that the plants he found to eat and the animals he found to kill for food were not just there.  They came from someplace.  And the conditions that created them could be understood and reproduced.  The result was agriculture.
The Enlightenment and the Romantic era that followed it were periods where we came to understand every aspect of human existence and then use that knowledge to our advantage.   No avenue of investigation or exploration was deemed beyond human comprehension.  This is the Modern world.  A world guided by reason and not emotion, superstition, and ignorance.
I have often suggested that mankind is at a critical junction in its history.  We are facing either a new age of enlightenment or a return to the Dark Ages, a new techno-feudalism.  There are three key moments in history that brought us out of the Middle-Ages, into the Romantic Era, and established The Modern.  These are Capitalism, Republicanism, and the Reformation.  Capitalism empowered the individual and created wealth, Republicanism freed the individual from oppressive government and the tyranny of the mob, and the Reformation encouraged people to interpret the world for themselves.  Yes, originally the Reformation said people could interpret the Bible for themselves, but this evolved beyond simply interpreting scripture.
Today, the free market is rejected for social planning, the republican form of government is brushed aside in the name of social democracy, and we look to the mass media to interpret the world for us.  We see the amalgamation of wealth and the force of government in Corporatism.  And the academics have perched themselves in their ivory towers like medieval scholars whispering in the kings ear’s, telling him what is best for the ignorant masses.
There is one more key element.  In the broadest and most general of terms we might say that the ages of Western Civilization could be labelled either Platonic or Aristotelian.  Plato’s philosophy fit nicely into the medieval worldview, but it was Aristotle’s that brought us out of it.  Plato is an idealist looking at an ideal reality of which ours is simply a reflection.  In that it amounts to a rejection of reality.  Aristotle was more practical.  His view looks at the world as it is.  Plato is about ideology over reality and Aristotle is about the underlying principles that govern reality.  The current zeitgeist is far more Platonic than Aristotelian. 
Here is an example of what I am writing about.  I have had a few friends who have taken Media Studies courses.  Some friends went to college and others to the more prestigious university.  Those in college learned media theory and analysis.  However, the courses taught in the university covered why there are not enough black lesbians in film.  The college taught principles (Aristotle) while the university taught ideology (Plato).  It’s obvious which course is more valuable in the job market.
The Medieval worldview adopted a Christian ideology with plenty of add-ons, such as the divine right of kings and the social hierarchy.  Anyone who deviated from this approved ideology was burned at the stake or worse.  Today, we call this political correctness.  It includes environmentalism, cultural relativism, internationalism, and socialism.  Anyone who disagrees is branded a global warming denier, a racist, a right-wing extremist, or an evil capitalist.  The more outspoken are slandered and misrepresented across the media and metaphorically burned in effigy.
Peasants like ideology, be it Christianity, or Marxism, or any other kind of -ism.  Ideology gives you a nice neat little package that you do not have to think too hard about once you’ve got the basics and if you follow the rules you’ll be socially acceptable.
Principles are in some ways easier in that there are certain fixed premises.  Where it gets difficult is in the application.  It is for each person to apply these principles in each circumstance regardless of how they feel about the issue.  This requires a higher degree of imagination, reason, and self-restraint.  These qualities are not generally found among the peasantry.
As you can tell from this and previous writings, I am very anti-socialist.  Every Saturday in city centre a group of socialist gather to spread their ideology.  I disagree with them, I am outraged by them, I see them as immoral.  And yet, I believe in freedom of speech.  So I grit my teeth, hold my tongue, and endure.
I have witness this exact same group of socialists form a mob and shout down those with whom they disagree until the police had to escort the two outnumbered men to safety.  The socialists then returned to their camp.  I saw one with a self-righteous smirk on his face as though he had accomplished same great moral deed.  There is no discussion, no debate, no mutual respect, and no acknowledgement of rights; there is only the force of the mob.  This is the medieval mindset where only force prevails.
Each society, each culture, each civilization gets the government that they deserve.  People who refuse to think for themselves become peasants, those who refuse to act for themselves become slaves, those who refuse to stand-up to tyranny deserve oppression.  If a new techno-feudalism is upon us and we are witnessing the end of Modern civilization, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.