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    “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”


    Number of posts : 16
    Age : 52
    Location : Luxembourg
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    Registration date : 2010-02-10

    “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”

    Post  RJHall on Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:00 pm

    WARNING: The following is a VERY long and rambling essay with many digressions, which is split into five posts. The essay’s summary: Although Rosa Luxemburg, bless her heart, was too optimistic in not predicting that humanity would end about 120 years after her death, at least in the end it was finally the right kind of optimism. We are rapidly approaching the bad sense of the second choice in “Socialism or Barbarism”; if only we had a time machine, so we could approach either the first choice or the good sense of the second choice.


    I'm very fond of Rosa Luxemburg. My profile photo that shows me proudly posing at her gravesite* in Berlin was taken after I made the family make a long and freezing pilgrimage in the snow. I actually moved from the United States to the country of Luxembourg over 10 years ago even though I know it is, of course, no relation to Rosa, and the two words aren’t even spelled the same in English (though they are in German). (That’s not the first time I did something like that: back in the 1990s when I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, I bought and moved to a house, even though I was perfectly happy with the apartment where I was and had no reason to move, solely because it was on “Chess Drive”. I’m fond of chess too. At least when I moved to the country Luxembourg, I had other reasons to move.)

    *And it turns out that Rosa has probably never been buried there anyway, but instead her body has probably been in storage in a Berlin hospital these 90 years. I already knew Rosa's body wasn't there now, since in 1935 the Nazis desecrated her grave (that's why I say "gravesite" rather than "grave"), but it turns out that it was probably never there in the first place anyway. But not a surprise - the shenanigans around her body supposedly being "discovered" months after her murder in 1919 (reasons were fictionalized in the novel "Rosa" by Jonathan Rabb) had always raised questions about whether that was really her body there.

    After her death, Lenin (ungraciously) included in his praise of Rosa Luxemburg a list of all the issues he thought she was “wrong” in. Ironically, on at least two of those issues (the national question and the bureaucratic undemocratic tendencies of the Bolshevik party) subsequent events in the 20th century showed that Rosa was right after all and Lenin was wrong! And probably this current economic crisis increases that number to three (the accumulation of capital). And I believe she was right on all the rest of them too.

    By 1919, the Social-Democrat Party, which had over the years revealed themselves to no longer be real socialists and had taken power in the German parliament after World War I, which they had supported (Rosa was in German prison for years for opposing WWI), ordered Rosa's torture and murder after she co-led the so-called Spartacist uprising. If they hadn't done that, there is an excellent chance that Stalinism would have been sufficiently strongly opposed and even a plausible chance that Hitlerism wouldn't have arisen in Germany. In other words, the subsequent events of world history I alluded to might have been completely different!

    I always imagine that a piece of classical music, Movement 3 of Shostakovich’s Symphony 11 (“Year 1905”), is like a memorial to her, who participated briefly (and was imprisoned for it) in the Russian Revolution of 1905. A theme in that movement is an old revolutionary song "Eternal Memory" sung at the gravesite of the fallen with the words: "You fell a victim in the fateful battle with selfless love for the people."

    Her defiant last written words, in the article “Order Prevails in Berlin”, turned out to be poignant: "I was, I am, I shall be!" Her last spoken words, to the vicious thugs who’d been sent to murder her, turned out to be endearingly sweet: "To what prison are you taking me?"

    And by saying "Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden"* ("Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently"), Rosa was even a pioneer advocate of neurodiversity (the rights of people with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome**, who literally “think differently” from neurotypicals (“normal” people))!

    *As my 9-year-old daughter delights in reminding me, my French and German language skills suck.  But even I can sort of read this sentence.

    **People with Asperger’s Syndrome (an Autistic Spectrum Disorder which I share) are in a way the exact opposite of sociopaths: Sociopaths don’t have empathy for other people but act like they do, while Aspies DO have empathy but DON’T act like they do. Sociopaths will smile broadly and engagingly, shake your hand with gusto, look you winningly in the eye, and laugh warmly at your humor. Aspies smile weakly or not at all, nervously avoid eye contact, and look blankly at your humor. As a result, it’s Aspies who are called insensitive selfish jerks and made the butt of jokes on sitcoms like “Big Bang Theory” and sociopaths who become successful politicians and business executives. Institutions and people are pressured in modern capitalistic society to act like sociopaths or else; this observation is far more convincing than an article I saw once that claimed that in modern society institutions and people were acting “autistic” because they were selfish and inner-directed and increasingly atomized and isolated from friends, family, and community. But in a climate that pressures people and institutions to act faster, more “efficiently”, and more selfishly, in a breathless rush of hurry-hurry-hurry, it is obviously sociopaths and those pressured to emulate them who thrive and flourish, not Auties and Aspies.

    Ah, Rosa! If it is possible to have a crush on someone who died 50 years before you were born, then I have always had one on Rosa. When I was a teenager, she was certainly the smartest woman I'd ever read or met, no contest. Even today, though now it would be a contest, Rosa might still win. I am bitterly jealous of "Jock-itch" (Leo Jogiches) from Rosa's passing endearments to him in some of her correspondence. And the guy must have been a terrible cad anyway, first since they eventually broke up and second because he had a funny name like "Jock-itch". Oh Rosa, dump him and marry me! Okay, the crush still isn't quite gone. Rosa was one of the two "big name" socialists I know of to have literally died for their beliefs, the other one being Che Guevara. (Poor Karl Liebknecht, who died on the same day as Rosa and for the same reason, but I just don’t think he was as "big” a name socialist.) (And I guess a case could be made for Leon Trotsky, who was indeed a “big name” socialist, but I don’t feel like making it.)

    One Trotskyist attack on Rosa’s championing of democracy in “The Russian Revolution” was that Rosa changed her mind since writing it, which is why she never published it and Paul Levi was evil for doing so years after her death,* since she later agreed that a democratic assembly was unrepresentative of the people in Germany, and even in “The Russian Revolution” she agreed with the substance of the Bolsheviks’ decision to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, disagreeing only with the remedy of whether a new Constituent Assembly election should be held. That last part reminds me of the right-wing Americans who argued that the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which stopped the vote counting in Florida and appointed Bush as President, was really a 7-2 decision since two of the dissenting judges agreed with the substance of the decision but only disagreed on the remedy. Of course, nobody who read the entire dissenting opinions of those two judges and not just isolated sentences could possibly believe for a moment that they basically agreed with the substance of the Court’s decision. Similarly, nobody who read the entire chapter of “The Russian Revolution” that eloquently extols democracy and attacks Lenin and Trotsky for having campaigned for weeks on the basis of having a Constituent Assembly and then turning around and dissolving it as soon as they came into power and not just isolated sentences could possibly believe for a moment that Rosa basically agreed with the substance of what the Bolsheviks did.

    *Of course, it had been Paul Levi who dissuaded Rosa in the first place from publishing articles criticizing the Russian Revolution in 1918, convincing her that their support should not be undermined at that crucial time—not that Trotskyists ever seem to praise Paul Levi for having done that!—causing Rosa to write up her thoughts in a draft manuscript for Paul so he could see where she was coming from on those matters. And I’m not jealous of him since he was her lover for only a short time.

    I have seen Trotskyist criticisms of Rosa’s increasing antagonism to trade unions or at least the bureaucratic leaders thereof. But again current events amply justify Rosa’s position. These days it is obvious that every union, although its words claim to represent teachers, auto workers, mine workers or government employees, speaks louder through its actions to impose employers’ demands for wage cuts in the name of “saving jobs.” At an August 15 union meeting, hundreds of workers at the General Motors Indianapolis Stamping Plant
    shouted down demands by the United Auto Workers leadership (who had just voted themselves a 5% pay raise) that they accept a 50% wage cut to sell the plant to JD Norman Industries (even though in May the workers had voted 384 to 22 to reject any talks with JD Norman) and forced the union officials to leave the building. (And the concessions of the UAW bureaucracy have done nothing to save jobs. Since 1986, the number of jobs at the plant has fallen from 5,600 to 650.)

    Most other criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg seem to be what I call “I went to school one day last week”-type objections.  When I was a teenager I overheard my mother arguing with my teenage sister.  At one point my mother stated that my sister never went to school anymore and always skipped school.  My sister bellowed indignantly, “I went to school one day last week!”  Hence conclusively refuting that she “never” went to school!

    Here is an example of such an “I went to school one day last week” objection: the objection that Rosa was wrong in saying that an independent Poland was impossible because one was created after World War I.  But of course she didn't mean that it was impossible for there to ever be a piece of paper like the Treaty of Versailles that had written on it that Poland was an independent country!  But Poland was and is indeed not truly independent of the interests and dictates of the great powers, and the tendency of petty nationalisms to insist on forming small breakaway "independent" nations (like the one of Luxembourg itself!) instead of uniting all workers to fight for their common interests is indeed a divisive and reactionary one. So Rosa was basically right, even if you might nitpick the literal truth of her words.

    Of course, my admiration of Rosa Luxemburg has nothing to do with whether she was the hottest babe in the history of socialism (though she was!) but with her writings and achievements and her admirable willingness to give her life in her struggle against insuperable odds. Of course.


    And yet there is one small obstacle between us (other than the fact that she died decades before I was born!), an irreconcilable difference. I’m a pessimist and she was an optimist. Specifically, I would say that humanity (certainly the civilization and possibly the species too) will probably end in around 30 years. I’ll elaborate in great detail later on why I think that, but for right now I doubt it’s a surprise to anyone (if it’s a surprise to you, just look around) that humanity is at least in trouble: “Everybody knows”* deep down in their very heart of hearts that “some THING is wrong on Saturn 3” (a line from an old movie commercial). I remember an old “Peanuts” cartoon strip where Charlie Brown and Lucy have a conversation something like this:

    *“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
    Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
    Everybody knows that the war is over
    Everybody knows the good guys lost
    Everybody knows the fight was fixed
    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
    That’s how it goes
    Everybody knows

    “Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
    Everybody knows that the captain lied
    Everybody got this broken feeling
    Like their father or their dog just died”
    -- Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”

    Lucy: How does it feel to know you’ll never amount to anything?

    Charlie Brown: I don’t know that! I might become a great doctor or lawyer or artist or something and accomplish great things!

    Lucy: How does it feel to know deep down in your very heart of hearts that you’ll never amount to anything?

    Charlie Brown: Terrible!

    Like Charlie Brown “everybody knows” at some level that humanity is in trouble and society will probably end soon, but almost everybody on the surface level is optimistic, denying it or at least not thinking too much about it. This, I feel, is exactly parallel to most people’s attitude toward death: everybody knows at some level that of course they personally and their loved ones and friends and everybody will die, but many people deny this by claiming to “believe” in a religious afterlife (in words, but without behaving as if they REALLY believed it), and everybody acts to dismiss or ignore effects of death, both their own and others’, in their everyday lives, with death always happening somewhere else and taken care of by other people and rarely having to be dealt with personally or thought about. But just because “everybody” does this doesn’t mean it’s correct to do so.

    Of the many lessons from Rosa's life and death, there is this one: Optimism can kill. For many years she had seen and drawn insights and acted upon them, but if she had acted sooner, then not only might she not have died in 1919, but the whole course of the 20th century might have been different. Specifically, if she had not optimistically waited until the end of December 1918 to form and build a real revolutionary movement in Germany (instead of deciding for years to keep sticking with the increasingly reactionary Social Democrats who eventually sanctioned her murder)*, then there is not only a good chance that the German revolution of 1918-1919 would have succeeded, but a quite good chance indeed that the German revolution of 1923 would have succeeded. Its failure was critical to the consolidation of Stalinism in Russia and Hitlerism in Germany. But instead her attitude for years was this (from a 1907 letter): "Since my return from Russia I feel rather isolated... I feel the pettiness and the hesitancy of our party regime more clearly and more painfully than ever before. However, I can't get so excited about the situation as you [Clara Zetkin] do, because I see with depressing clarity that neither things nor people can be changed - until the whole situation has changed, and even then we shall just have to reckon with inevitable resistance if we want to lead the masses on. I have come to that conclusion after mature reflection. The plain truth is that August [Bebel], and still more so the others, have completely pledged themselves to parliament and parliamentarianism, and whenever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentary action they are hopeless - no, worse than hopeless, because they then do their utmost to force the movement back into parliamentary channels, and they will furiously defame as 'an enemy of the people' anyone who dares to venture beyond their own limits. I feel that those of the masses who are organized on the party are tired of parliamentarianism, and would welcome a new line in party tactics, but the party leaders and still more the upper stratum of opportunist editors, deputies, and trade-union leaders are like incubus. We most protest vigorously against this general stagnation, but it is quite clear that in doing so we shall find ourselves against the opportunists as well as the party leaders and August [Bebel]. As long as it was a question of defending themselves against Bernstein and his friends, August & Co. were glad of our assistance, because they were shaking in their shoes. But when it is a question of launching an offensive against opportunism then August and the rest are with Ede [Bernstein], Vollmar and David against us. That's how I see matters, but the chief thing is to keep your chin up and not get too excited about it. Our job will take years."

    *Even after August 4, 1914, when the Social Democrats (SPD) voted for war credits in the Parliament and Rosa formed the Gruppe Internationale, later called Spartakusbund, she did not formally break with the SPD. Her slogan was: “Don’t leave the party, change the course of the party.” When the Independent SPD (USPD) was formed in 1917 by SPD members of the parliament who had been expelled from the SPD because they refused to vote for new credits for the war, Rosa and the Spartakusbund joined this centrist organisation as a faction even though the USPD’s most prominent leaders included Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, both of whom Rosa had sharply criticized. She justified this in an article asserting that the Spartakusbund had not joined the USPD in order to dissolve itself in a spineless opposition. “It has joined the new party—confident in a mounting aggravation of the social situation and working for it—in order to push the new party forward, in order to be its hortative conscience… and in order to take the real leadership of the party,” she wrote. She sharply attacked the Bremen Left, who refused to join the USPD and described it as a waste of time, writng: “It is a pity that [their] system of small kitchens forgets the main thing, namely the objective circumstances, which in the final analysis are decisive and will be decisive for the attitude of the masses… It is not enough that a handful of people have the best recipe in their pocket and know how to lead the masses. The thinking of the masses must be liberated from the past traditions of 50 years. This is only possible in a big process of continuous inner self-criticism of the movement as a whole.” It was only in December 1918, in the midst of fierce revolutionary struggles, that the KPD was finally founded by the Spartakusbund, the Bremen Left and a number of other left-wing organisations. Her time-wasting optimism over, Rosa could finally write of the USPD she had earlier joined, “The Independent Social Democracy is innately a weak child, and its essence is compromise.... Its official birth as an independent party is not an act of manly resolution or clear decision on the basis of individual initiative, not a historic deed, but rather the enforced result of being thrown out by the Scheidemanns—an episode of sordid wrangling over ‘party discipline’ which brought shame to the banner of socialism.” In January 1919, just days before her own murder, she wrote: “Today, in view of the bodies of murdered proletarians, in view of the bloody orgies of Scheidemann, et al., the ‘Spartacists’ have a contempt grown tenfold and a clenched fist for this miserable policy of compromise and betrayal of the cause of the revolution. The Haase people’s empty phrases about a coalition ‘of all socialist tendencies’ are in reality a repetition of the former well-known combination: Scheidemann and the Independents. All the USPD’s great to-do about ‘unification’ amounts to is the resurrection of the Ebert-Haase government with a change in personnel.” If only she’d written like that years earlier!

    As late as 1913, after a party setback, Rosa published an article ("After the Jena Congress") in which she wrote this: "However unpleasant the situation may seem to some comrades, there is not the slightest reason for pessimism and despondency. This period must, just like every other historically conditioned period, be endured. On the contrary, the more clearly we look into things, the more energetically, vigorously and merrily we can continue our struggle. . . . Every day, the course of events itself is leading with historic necessity towards increasingly vindicating the tactical endeavors of the left, and if this development itself leads to the overpowering of the elements of stagnation in the party, then the minority of the Jena congress can look towards the future with good spirits. That the Jena congress has brought about clarity on the reciprocal power relationship in the party and led for the first time to a self-contained left opposed to the bloc of the swamp and the right, is a pleasant beginning to further development which can only be welcome."

    When she finally stopped saying things like that, it was too late. At the very end of 1918, when she had only about two weeks left to live, Rosa told the Founding Congress of the KPD: “In the form that I depict it, the process may seem rather more tedious than one had imagined it at first.* It is healthy, I think, that we should be perfectly clear as to all the difficulties and complications of this revolution. For I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy. On the contrary, the greater the task, the more will we gather all of our forces. And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed. I make no attempt to prophesy how much time will be needed for this process. Who among us cares about the time; who worries, so long only as our lives suffice to bring it to pass. It is only important that we know clearly and precisely what is to be done; and I hope that my feeble powers have shown you to some extent the broad outlines of that which is to be done.”

    *So, when Karl Liebknecht later agreed to commit to an immediate revolutionary uprising instead of the long painstaking bottom-up process Rosa had described, she said “Karl, how could you? And what about our program?” Another reason I don’t count Karl among the two big-name socialists who died for their beliefs.

    Incidentally, don't get me wrong; Rosa was no airhead and usually did act appropriately, and furthermore spent almost all of World War I in prison for the crime of opposing the war so couldn't personally have done much from there, and it's always easy to criticize from hindsight, and as Lenin said about Rosa and her critics, she was an eagle and they are chickens and an eagle can sometimes fly as low as chickens but chickens can never fly as high as an eagle. Still, I just wish she had done more and sooner, that's all. She saw years earlier which way the wind was blowing.

    There are many sayings in English that must have many equivalent sayings in every language: Action speaks louder than words. I would say that there is a spectrum of optimism, with one end being the kind of optimism that encourages inaction or ineffective action and the other end being the kind that inspires action, and Rosa unfortunately wasted too many years on the first end of the spectrum moving slowly to the second end. I would characterize three regions on that spectrum, one on the first end, one still on the first side, and one at the other end, by things that men sometimes say to women. I find the first kind patronizing, the second kind revolting, and the third inspiring though possibly naïve: “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” (e.g. Rosa: “The chief thing is to keep your chin up and not get too excited about it.”); “Lie back and enjoy it.” (e.g. Rosa: “This period must, just like every other historically conditioned period, be endured.”); “You go, girl!” (e.g. Rosa: “I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyze neither your zeal nor your energy.”).


    There have been verbal disagreements about whether and in what proportion emotions like “hope” and “anger” and “fear” and so on can motivate action and change. For example, Harvard Sitkoff, historian of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, observes that social movements require both “anger” and “hope”: People only rebel when they have some “hope” to accompany their “anger”. Though it seems to me that some kinds of “hope” dissuade action: people fall asleep under Democratic presidents but at least they march against Republican ones. I’m afraid I don’t exclude myself. I marched in Eugene, Oregon, against Bush I, and people all over the world (even here in Luxembourg) marched against Bush II, but I never marched against Bill Clinton, and I don’t remember that anyone else did either, even when his policies like bombing Yugoslavia could have called for it. Was the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999 the only time anyone erupted under Clinton in his whole 8 years? When “anger” is mixed with “hope”, the only examples of street heat I can think of are like St. Petersburg in 1905, when the people marched to petition the tsar to please ease up on the oppression just a tad (like Oliver Twist holding up his empty gruel bowl and saying “Please sir, may I have more?”), which didn’t turn out all that well for them (though Bloody Sunday did at least inspire people for the rest of that year and for 12 years later who no longer shared that naïve hope).

    On the other hand, some people say that constructive “fear” (of the consequences of global warming and climate change) is the best friend planet earth has, combined with “hope”, not despondency leading to paralysis and inaction, while others say that the power of “anger” is the important thing and sometimes “hope” can be your worst enemy: with hope, Jewish parents didn’t leave Nazi Germany or, worse, left but later said, “I’m homesick for Germany, let’s go back, they say all is forgiven and to make it up to us they’re offering free Kool-Aid, aren’t you thirsty, kids?”, or with hope, as long as the Americans had “hoped” to win the space race against Russia, nothing important happened; while without hope, truly desperate Jewish parents sent their children all alone into an unsafe, unknown, harmful future, and so their children had better chances to survive, or without hope, as soon as Russia “angered” and offended America by sending Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, Kennedy announced the decision to go to the Moon a month later. Though it sure doesn’t sound to me like those latter parents were “without hope” that their children might be saved thereby (the parents might have been without hope for their own fates, but not for their children’s). After all, if they had been COMPLETELY without hope even for their children’s fates, wouldn’t they have despondently said, “Oh well, there’s no chance that the kids would even make it to England anyway, and even if they did, Hitler would take over there too, so sooner or later the kids would inevitably wind up in Auschwitz anyway, so why bother trying to save them?” And unfortunately, the entire world is already scoffing at the stupid Americans and has been for years, but instead of sparking a sudden change, this seems only to make its government more ornery and stubborn and defiantly obstinate. The 1961-style kick in the pants (and the earlier 1957 Sputnik kick in the pants) worked ONLY because the American government ALREADY cared about whether its space achievements exceeded Russia’s and so in effect already saw itself in a space-race. These days, the American government doesn’t already care (in actions, not words) about what the rest of the world says and does. By the time the real kick in the pants comes that makes the American government unable to deny anymore that there is a problem, then either the Rapture will have come or else the problem will be so advanced that the government will only be able to do “too little, too late”.

    But these disagreements seem to be mostly if not entirely verbal. I guess, to avoid confusion, we could use some new vocabulary instead of “hope”*, focusing on whether it inspires inaction or action (the important objective part) and optimism or pessimism (the contingent psychological part). Four terms instead of “hope”, two that justify inaction or ineffective action and two that inspire action: “dope”, “mope”, “rope”**, “cope”. The first and third are optimistic, the second and fourth pessimistic:

    *Besides, U.S. President Obama has spoiled the words “hope” and “change” for me.

    **You know, like a rope to cling to while you are actively climbing a mountain.


    OPTIMISM dope rope

    PESSIMISM mope cope

    Since in common discourse it seems to go without saying that inaction (or ineffective action, about which I will say much more below) is the order of the day, and since people commonly seem obsessed with the contingent psychological part, it seems in practice that most often by “hope” people mean what I call here “dope” and that most optimism vs. pessimism debate is between what I call here “dope” and “mope”.

    The contingent psychological part (pure optimism vs. pessimism) is beyond reason, and arguing about it is a matter of rationalization instead. Just like there's no reason people are divided into "morning people" and "night people" or "dog lovers" and "cat lovers". Of course many "reasons" (rationalizations) are offered by one side against the other side, but I guess it all boils down to what kind of person you are temperamentally and the real reasons are psychological or something.

    That being said, here's my alliterative observation: Optimists are Oblivious to the news and what's going on around them, while Pessimists Pay attention to it. So I'm not a Pessimist, I just Pay attention!

    More rationalizations occur to me. I have always thought Nietzsche's dictum "That which does not kill me makes me stronger" was especially ironic given Nietzsche's later life. If the young Nietzsche had known that the old Nietzsche would spend the last ten years of his life in an intense state of insanity that (figuratively, not literally) almost left him catatonic, a fate that clearly neither killed him nor left him stronger in ANY sense, he would certainly not have implied that that saying was always true, unless he was (as usual) deliberately exaggerating for shock value. Other counterexamples are easy to imagine: Alzheimer’s, coma, being nonfatally hit by a truck, etc.

    So strictly speaking, Nietzsche's dictum, like most advice and proverbs and sayings and so on, should be qualified to only be true "sometimes": "SOMETIMES what can go wrong will go wrong", "SOMETIMES history repeats itself", "SOMETIMES he who hesitates is lost", "SOMETIMES look before you leap", etc. With the "sometimes" these sayings can often be true and useful; without it, they are false exaggerations at best and useless contradictions at worst (e.g., the last two sayings would contradict each other). Hence I propose the dictum: "Always say 'sometimes'." Of course, its failure to take its own advice is intentional. :-)

    But then, if you insist on always strictly speaking in this context, always insisting that “sometimes” should be added, then you are raising what I called above the “I went to school one day last week” objection to nitpick what might be profound truths. SOMETIMES false exaggerations can still be profound truths. That is why I don’t take the dictum “Always say ‘sometimes’” too seriously.

    On the other hand, if people leave out the "sometimes" and routinely exaggerate, they can even stop noticing that they are exaggerating! My mother was always :-) doing that. "My client was literally climbing the walls." Not unless your client was Spiderman!

    So anyway, the whole optimism vs. pessimism debate, that whole rant that people probably go off on several times a year to convince themselves of the correctness, justification, and rationalization of one’s own psychological predilections as part of their struggle with their own inner demons, usually boils down, in my terminology, to whether being a “dope” is good or bad. Defenders of “dope” will say that it is unhappy people who are oblivious to the miracles and wonderment that surrounds us and have no gratitude for the amazingness that is all of creation. Pessimists, they say, just pay attention to more of the bad stuff and optimists pay more attention to the good stuff, there being no more or less of either; you could find just as many things to celebrate as you can to despair over.

    However, the distribution of things to celebrate or despair over is like Anne Elk’s Theory of the Brontosaurus (now called the Apatasaurus) in a Monty Python sketch: “The brontosaurus is thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.” On a scale of significance, at one end where the scale is relatively small, like whether this puppy right now has adorable eyes, then pessimism is “thin” and there is much to celebrate rather than despair over. In the middle of the scale, where there are things involving the suffering and deaths of hundreds and thousands of people and the affairs of nations and so on, then pessimism is “much much thicker” and there is little to celebrate but much to despair over. At the far end of the scale, involving stars and galaxies and the accelerating universe, then pessimism is again “thin”. So it’s not completely arbitrary whether you look at things to celebrate or things to despair over. It’s a matter of which part of the scale you are looking at.

    This Theory of the Brontosaurus also applies to time scales as well as to space scales: Only when looking at the short term can things look like successes, inspirational real-life stories like Republic Windows and Norma Rae and Erin Brockovitch and Cindy Sheehan in August 2005 and Oregon passing Measures 66 and 67 (which raised taxes slightly on corporations and the richest residents). When looking at the longer term, beyond those moments into months or years, those things all look like failures. “Happily ever after” only exists in fairy tales. In real life, “happily” is never “ever after”, though “sadly” sometimes is. All success is short-term; failure can be long-term. All good things must come to an end, but some bad things can be endless. As they sang on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (a TV show): “Nothing lasts forever, only love pads the film.” Species, and worlds and stars and maybe even the universe itself must last only a finite amount of time, but extinction is forever. No thing lasts forever, and nothingness can last forever.

    Personally, I feel (or like to tell myself) that my pessimism has given me a thick skin or something, so that I can shrug off bad times with a knowing "Yeah, that figures, what else is new" or a sarcastic “Stop the presses, here’s a completely unexpected news flash, I could never have predicted that in ten quinzillion* years” or something. And my superstitions go in that direction too. Instead of visualizing a good outcome and focusing energy on making it happen, my instinct is instead to focus on the bad outcome and so "jinx" it into NOT happening. Kind of like washing a car, expecting that the weather will stay sunny, and then it rains. Expecting one outcome jinxed it into not happening and made the opposite happen. So maybe expecting the worst will make the opposite happen.

    *Non-native English speakers needn’t be confused by that word. I just made it up to mean a really big number. It’s not a real word.

    But again, action speaks louder than either optimistic or pessimistic words. It is action that creates results, not attitudes that never make their way from your head to your hands. I said above about Rosa that (sometimes) optimism can kill. Of course, another, easier lesson to be drawn from life experience is this: SOMETIMES pessimism can kill too. Just as optimism can be self-preventing, so too can pessimism be self-fulfilling. So you have to carefully steer your mood and actions between the two extremes of hope and despair and not succumb to either one. You learn that from chess, too. You always have to ruthlessly assess the truth and always act appropriately to the correct assessment, neither giving up too soon nor futilely fighting on. Easier said than done, of course! Anyway, I guess the real lesson is: Getting it wrong can kill. Striving to get it right is sometimes helped, sometimes harmed by this maxim: Success can never be guaranteed, but failure sometimes can. (Examples: Nothing you do on the job can ever guarantee that you won’t get fired, but some things can guarantee that you will get fired. Nothing you do in a totalitarian regime can ever guarantee that you won’t get captured and tortured and killed, but some things can guarantee that you will be. Etc.) You have to correctly assess not only what needs to be done, but what can and will be done.

    One point Al Gore made in that presentation and movie “An Inconvenient Truth” is that people tend to go from “disbelief to despair” completely missing the intervening steps where you actually do something about it.

    Gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be because every single one of the usual proposed solutions requires the change to be either “government-driven or based in Washington” or else come from rich “entrepreneurs”? Yeah, I can see former Prexy* Bush II and current Prexy Oilbama stepping up to the plate any day now. Even George Soros, usually cited as a “good guy” rich entrepreneur, when asked a few years ago whether he would spend a significant portion of his money to dethrone Bush II, hemmed and hawed and finally said something like, “Um, well, if I were sure it would succeed.” Excuse me, but I’m not sure I can see the practical difference between placing hope in these people and having no hope at all….

    *Slang for “President”, this word was also used in the prescient classic science fiction book by John Brunner, "The Sheep Look Up", which features Prexy by nickname as a president who first ignores environmental horrors by giving uninspired one-liners on the way to vacations or celebrations and then, when they're too big to ignore, announces the country is under attack by terrorists, declares martial law, and throws the liberals into chain gangs. Pretty good depiction of Bush II almost 30 years early!

    So why is it that we can tend to lose hope on these kinds of “gloom and doom” issues (peak oil, climate change, etc.)? Well, it is because you cannot really separate discussing science and discussing politics. Let’s face it -- trying to inspire us to hope while addressing facts like oil supply and glacier melting while ignoring facts like even when 10 million of us worldwide march in the streets we’re just dismissed as a “focus group” and like for the foreseeable future the leaders of the countries and the corporations are a bunch of sh*t* is bound to be a failure.

    *I have often wondered: is there anybody on the PLANET who is mollified by the practice of putting characters in place of letters of certain words; that is, is there anybody who is NOT morally offended by "sh*t" and who WOULD be offended by "shit"? It seems to me that everybody is EQUALLY offended by "sh*t" and "shit", so that, either neither "word" offends you or else both do. The practice of printing things like "sh*t" must be an artificial one advised by lawyers.

    My reaction to Gore and most other attempts to inspire optimism is “Is that the best you can do? Gee, now I really AM depressed!” In addition, of course, to my negative reactions to “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” and “Lie back and enjoy it” (the popular book “Pronoia”, judging from excerpts I’ve read, tells its victims both those things at once!). Plus disdain for the infantile wish for “peril-sensitive sunglasses” like in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams which prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you. “Don’t worry, be happy!” “Happiness is a choice!” “I don’t want to waste my beautiful mind on things like that!” “Qué será sera!” “Après moi le déluge!” Etc. (Maybe some day they will repeat the words of the ABBA song Cassandra: "Sorry Cassandra I misunderstood / Now the last day is dawning / Some of us wanted but none of us could / Listen to words of warning". But probably not, and it would be cold comfort if they did anyway.)

    Going out of your way to “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” seems to me like a little child covering his or her ears and shouting loudly, “LA LA LA, you must be talking but I can’t hear you, LA LA LA!” Or like the picture of three monkeys who “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Or like Schultz in the old American TV show “Hogan’s Heroes”: “I see NOTHING! I know NOTHING!” The person is so mentally immature that he or she is comfortable only “Home on the Range”: “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the skies are not cloudy all day.” As the Beatles sang, "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream" and "Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void".

    Unfortunately, this message does little to reassure those of us who, gosh darn it, insist on being worried about the problem! Usually understanding the problem is better than denial in order to fix the problem. Nevertheless, it appears that, as T. S. Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."

    But some people, like Henry David Thoreau, are simply unable to disregard bad things and only enjoy the good things. “Suppose you have a small library, with pictures to adorn the walls--a garden laid out around--and contemplate scientific and literary pursuits, &c., and discover all at once that your villa, with all its contents, is located in hell, and that the justice of the peace has a cloven foot and a forked tail--do not these things suddenly lose their value in your eyes?" By being in hell, Thoreau meant the fact that the state government bowed down before the federal Fugitive Slave Law: "I have lived for the last month,--and I think that every man in Massachusetts capable of the sentiment of patriotism must have had a similar experience,--with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country. I had never respected the Government near to which I had lived, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, minding my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent. less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before, perhaps, in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The site of that political organization called Massachusetts is to me morally covered with volcanic scoriae and cinders, such as Milton describes in the infernal regions. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers, and we, the ruled, I feel curious to see it. Life itself being worth less, all things with it, which minister to it, are worth less." Imagine the “hell” that Thoreau, a famous 19th century Nature-lover, would have made of the environment of today’s world. As the song “Clockwork Black” by Wendy Carlos says, "We are all in hell / All of us in hell / Not afraid to tell / We have made this hell".

    Why are people behaving like slowly boiling frogs and enduring rather than acting? Thomas Jefferson answered in the Declaration of Independence that "all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." But he continued that people will (or at least should) indeed finally act when the tipping point is reached: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

    So anyway, yeah, “Keep hope alive”, but it’s not always quite as easy to do that as to say that. Global climate change looks like it might be terminal cancer rather than the Lance Armstrong kind you can treat and recover from….

    As Richard Dawkins says in another context, "Isn't bracing truth better than false hope?" Isn't one able to act more effectively when one knows the reality, even if it leads to a pessimistic outlook, than when one is basing an optimistic outlook on denial and blind faith?

    Hartston and Wason's book The Psychology of Chess in turn quotes Benjamin Franklin's classic (18th century) essay "The Morals of Chess":

    “’And lastly, we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs; the habit of hoping for a favourable chance, and that of perservering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so sudden to vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after contemplation, discovers the means of extricating oneself from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory from our skill; or, at least, from the negligence of our adversary.’

    “Sadly, Benjamin Franklin betrays in that paragraph his lack of skill as a chess player. Any stronger player will have learnt precisely the opposite lesson from chess: that a lost position is made no better by a Micawberish* hope that something will turn up. One must fight and preserve as much optimism as possible when affairs are bad; one learns the art of opportunism, but one also learns not to rely on the mistakes of the adversary. Above all, chess teaches us to live with the consequences of our own decisions, whether they were good or bad.”

    *Like Oliver Twist, whom I mentioned earlier, Micawber is a character from the 19th century author Charles Dickens.

    And I would add that it is surprising that the essay was called “The Morals of Chess”, because Franklin’s recommendation, to always play out to the end and hope that the opponent will make a mistake, is downrude RUDE! It is simply bad manners, extremely bad chess etiquette, to keep playing on in a lost position rather than resign the game. It tells the opponent, “I don’t respect you or your chessplaying ability at all; even though this game is lost I am so confident that you will make a childish blunder that I refuse to graciously resign but instead I will make you play this game out to the final checkmate.”

    I also found another interesting passage in that same book (Hartston and Wason), not about resignation per se, but about drawing and settling for a drawn game rather than fighting for a win:

    “There are two priorities for any contestant in a chess game: to win, if possible, and to avoid defeat. (For some amateurs, of course, it matters not who won or lost . . . but here we are dealing with the serious competitors.) For most players, the misery of defeat is greater than the elation of victory. ... For some players, the pain of defeat is so high that throughout their careers they appear to strive not so much for success, but for the avoidance of failure. ... Particularly when a player has scaled great peaks in the chess world, a defeat by a lesser man has an element of humiliation. The fear of losing grows as an eminent player grows older. The temptation to settle for a comfortable life of painless draws may become harder to resist. We would cite many cases of grandmasters who in their prime were candidates for the world championship but rapidly thereafter underwent a metamorphosis into 'drawing masters'. The cause is not the peacefulness of old age, but the comparative loss of attraction of glory compared with the suffering of failure.”

    The classic (1954 this time) science fiction story "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin, in which a lovable teenage girl stows away on a spaceship and, to everyone's sadness and regret and with great pathos, has to be jettisoned into space because her extra mass was not computed into the limited amount of fuel held by the spaceship, kind of exemplifies the attitude of recognizing when something is inevitable but not liking it much. (The particular situation in that story has been nitpicked for 50 years, for example as "good physics but lousy engineering", but it's the general attitude I'm talking about here.)

    Of course, the real “Cold Equations” are those of economics, not physics. Both the fact that profit interests of big corporations demanded cost-cutting even at the cost of safety measures that would save people’s lives, and, more tellingly, the fact that such human-decided (not nature-decided) economic consequences of unbridled capitalism were not even recognized, let alone seriously questioned, by anybody are typical of how capitalism works. The latter precisely parallels such real life situations as today’s Gusher in the Gulf and the discussion of such by politicians, media, and mainstream commentators.

    When I read a recent book by Garry Kasparov (former World Chess Champion and arguably the greatest player of all time (yes, we chess fans enjoy arguments like that!)), How Life Imitates Chess, which had finally come out after a wait of two years*, I was especially curious what Kasparov might have to say about whether strong chessplayers are fatalistic about their games. After all, Bill Hartston (whom I quoted above) is a couple titles below Kasparov! Unfortunately, the new K book had nothing specifically about that, though passages like this were intriguing (talking about the loss of his World Champion title in 2000 at the peak of his powers):

    *Though the delay was worth it; as cowriter Mig Greengard explained in his blog, "This book is the book Kasparov wanted to write. It's coming out a year later than planned expressly because he refused to put out the ghost-written, commercial version the first publisher expected. He doesn't need the money and he has ideas he wants to get out. Of course Garry will be happy if it sells well, but he was just as uncompromising with the book as he is well known to be in other areas." Incidentally, I'm very glad the UK version came out first, months ahead of the US version, because: "The American edition is relatively streamlined -- much of the chess has been cut out as recommended by the American editor. Fair enough, the US isn't much of a chess country and she thought it would distract from the message and ideas in the book." I'm not so sure I would be as sanguine about that as Mig! Not that there is any "hard" chess content anyway, no games or moves and just one diagram outside the Glossary at the back of the book. Just talking about chess is "soft" chess.

    “My years of success had made me vulnerable to such a trap. When faced with a new threat I assumed my old methods would get me through. I was incapable of acknowledging that I was in serious trouble, that I had been out-prepared by my young opponent. When the realization finally hit me it was already late in the short match and I went from feeling sure I would recover to believing it was impossible. I managed to put up a little fight towards the end but it wasn't enough. I lost the match without winning a single one out of the fifteen games while losing two. My loss stemmed from over-confidence and complacency. ... This is what I call the gravity of past success. Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine. There is a very strong temptation to think only of the positive result without considering all the things that went wrong - or that could have gone wrong - on the way. After a victory we want to celebrate it, not analyse it. We replay the triumphant moment in our mind until it looks as though it were completely inevitable all along.”

    Doesn’t it sound like he’s talking about humanity’s response to its current crises?

    Perhaps the most illuminating thing on the subject of “dope” I found was the very very last sentence, in the Glossary: "Very few professional games end in checkmate as players resign as soon as loss appears inevitable." But the other sentences in the book are also worth reading, of course!

    Anyway, it's not just chess in which its players are encouraged to know when to lay down the king and resign. Isn't the song "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" talking about poker? (In a Star Trek episode, The Corbomite Manuever, the ship is in a hopeless situation, and Spock's recommendation is: "In chess, when one is outmatched, checkmate. The game is over." Kirk doesn't accept that recommendation, saying "Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker!" and daringly bluffs his way out of the situation. Of course, daring bluffs can only work against one or a small handful of opponents; even the greatest poker player in the world cannot successfully bluff every single one of 7 billion opponents.)

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    Re: “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”

    Post  RJHall on Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:03 pm

    PART 2


    The optimism vs. pessimism debate has greater practical consequences and seriousness than just a comparison of psychological proclivities, of course, but carries over directly into politics. As an American, it’s what’s happening in the U.S. that I still follow closely.  Like this Obama guy I didn’t vote for (I went Cynthia McKinney).  In 2004 Bush II said something that I actually agreed with, that at least you knew exactly what Bush stood for and where he stood (as opposed to Kerry, whom Bush said was a flip-flopper).  Yes, indeed, George, we knew exactly where you stand.  But with Obama and his justly earned marketer of the year award, the image that Obama is wonderful and good and a staunch ally of the little man who raised all his campaign contributions in small amounts from ordinary people, you DON'T know where he stands; his supporters think he is far to the left of where he really is.

    But observers of American politics who are farther to the left than Obama supporters could still make an excellent guess where he really is. Obama, like all politicians, is firmly in the grip of the capitalist bourgeoisie who pay him lots of money. That’s just plain how politics works: the rulers are powerful interest groups who control politicians with money. That’s just obvious to a Marxist, but Obama supporters have always just been unable to understand it or exempt Obama from it for some reason, ever since the 2008 presidential campaign.

    The saying "A poor workman blames his tools" can be generalized to politics: Exonerating the "big boys" and blaming only the corrupt politicians in government, blaming only the employees who did the deed and exculpating the employers who paid them to do it, is kind of like blaming the chess piece and not the chess player for making an illegal move. Sure, of course, politicians and employees are humans, not mere chess pieces, and should not be allowed to claim the Nuremberg Defense that "I was only following orders" ("Befehl ist Befehl"), and so of course they are bad guys too. Still, you shouldn't only punish the privates and sergeants who torture at Abu Ghraib and let the Prexys and Rummys off the hook and give medals to the generals. (For those who do not closely follow U.S. politics, that last part is not a joke: Major General Geoffrey Miller, who first ran the prison at Guantanamo Bay and then went to Iraq to advise them of the more aggressive prisoner interrogation techniques they had used at Gitmo, was later, after the scandal became public, given the Distinguished Service Medal for this.) Observing (and detesting) the politicians without following (and detesting) the money they are paid (and the people who pay it to them) is like watching a game of football (either the U.S. kind or the rest-of-the-world kind) without watching the ball: No matter how entertaining and even enlightening it can be to watch all the players running around back and forth, if the spectators don't also see the ball then they are missing out on an important bit, probably THE important bit, of what is going on and why.

    It’s kind of like on Columbo: lots of little things, each of which might individually be trivial and each of which might be easily explained away, all add up to strongly focusing the detective's suspicion and making him know whodunit.

    Even during the presidential campaign, there were lots and lots of little things that added up to Obama’s entire campaign being "Bait and Switch": mentioning "change" since that is what we were all desperately salivating for but really offering it only as one word in this line from a Neil Diamond song: "Except for the names and a few other changes, if you talk about me, the story is the same one."

    On a comedy TV show a while back (called "Almost Live"), there was a scene in which two happy people are lying back on top of a pickup truck, drinking beer, enjoying life. One of them says contentedly, "It doesn't get better than this!" The other one (played by Bill Nye the Science Guy) suddenly sits up and says worriedly, "It doesn't?" Only when enough people start having that last response to the status quo (which definitely includes Obama) can anything REALLY change.

    A line from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy expresses the difference in politics between the two mainstream parties. When the space policeman is shooting at our heroes, he shouts to them: "I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterwards in seedy space-rangers bars, like some cops I could mention! I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterwards for hours to my girlfriend!" The first sentence is Republicans and the second sentence is Democrats. The first sentence was Prexy Bush II and the second sentence is Oilbama. Their actions are the same, and only their words are different.

    The Democrats and Republicans are so entrenched in the same system that the "Democracy Theater" shows every four years are like asking prison inmates to decide which poster they want on their cell wall, the one depicting the Good Cop or the one depicting the Bad Cop.

    Incidentally, voting for the Democrat for President rather than for a peoples party candidate strikes me as going for instant gratification, going for “Ms. Right Now” rather than “Ms. Right,” wanting an immediate hollow victory now instead of building toward a substantial victory in the future. The Dems and the Reps are playing the “good cop” and “bad cop” roles in the corporate duocracy. Better to go with the “loyal friend” who’s really on your side instead of the “good cop” who just pretends he is but doesn’t really act in your interests. Actions speak louder than words. In 1992 I voted for Bill Clinton, and yes, Mr. NAFTA, Mr. Bomb Yugoslavia For A Lie (the nonexistent mass graves in Yugoslavia were the 1990s counterpart to the nonexistent WMDs in Iraq) with an eye toward creating the now-upheld-by-U.N. International Court of Justice ruling “independent” (ha!) Kosovo, turned out to be merely a hollow victory.

    Wikipedia says about the “Good Cop/Bad Cop” interrogation technique: “The technique is especially useful against subjects who are young, frightened, or naïve. Using the technique on those familiar with it may still cause an instinctive psychological response, however as they are aware of the attempted manipulation they may just close-down entirely or try to disrupt the procedure (see below). Experienced interrogators assess the subject's level of intelligence and experience with the technique prior to its application.” So what does it say about U.S. voters that they fall for the same technique every four years? The saying is that even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked; despite their many bruises, most voters seem to have lost this ability, mesmerized by words.

    By the way, of course, I’m not anti-American just because I criticize American politics and the American government. Such criticisms are more a lament than a condemnation, a cry of “Look what they’ve done to my song, ma!”*

    *Ironically, that Melanie song from the 1970s was more recently used in a commercial: “Look what they’ve done to my oatmeal!”

    Defenders of “dope” justify their support for Oilbama by saying that they must cling to hope like it's a life preserver because even false hope beats emotional defeat and that Obama is really on their side but unfortunately does not force his issues through like his predecessors but is more crafty than people give him credit for and will soon step in as the voice of reason and set things right.

    I can apply my usual saying to this, which, given my outlook on the near future of humanity, applies to all optimistic scenarios (as if Oilbama becoming a dictator like Bush II were in any sense “optimistic”): “If it don’t happen soon, it ain’t never gonna happen!”*

    *That’s deliberately bad, colloquial grammar. For non-native English speakers I should say: “If it doesn’t happen soon, it will never happen.”

    For years I have been saying (to justify my moving to Luxembourg from the U.S.) that it was a no-brainer for any parent to want their child to have better than 37th-rate health care and 17th-rate education.* In 2009, during the health care brouhaha** in the U.S., there was a New York Times/CBS News poll showing that 72% of the American public favored single-payer universal health care, broken down into not only 87% of Democrats and 73% of Independents, but even 50% of Republicans! And yet, Obama (or “Bush in Blackface”, as I call him) had taken that obvious and easy and massively popular policy “off the table” so as to appease the insurance and pharmaceutical industry! Yes, "democracy" in the U.S. is clearly badly broken, because the U.S. government is not left to the people. Single Payer has reached bipartisan status! And yet our glorious President Change, President Hope, or President Bait-and-Switch as I sometimes call him, is 100% part of the problem, not the solution, on this and so many other issues. And if the Supreme Court ruled that Single Payer was unconstitutional (like they recently almost did with the Voting Rights Act: so much for the success of the Civil Rights Movement!), then they (Court and Constitution) are part of the problem too. Our always deeply hamstrung system of self-government is now utterly broken. What more proof do you need?

    *There are other Americans very critical of U.S. policy, of course, and even, like Naomi Wolf in her book “The End of America”, warn of approaching fascism. But what sometimes I really can’t understand, especially the ones with young children (like Wolf) or planning to have children, is why the heck haven't they rescued them yet instead of keeping them there until it's too late. It's like the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, where in flashbacks it's revealed that the protagonist was the mother of a 5-year-old girl who saw the danger of what was coming but yet did nothing to try to get her daughter out of the U.S. into Canada until it was far too late and of course she was unsuccessful when she finally tried. I mean really, if you have a child and can foresee that there is even the tiniest of chances that your child will be in danger, how can you not lift a finger to save your child until it's too late, like a deer staring paralyzed into the headlights of an approaching car? In all the protagonist's ruminations, she spends lots of time missing her husband but spends no time at all missing her daughter, or regretting that she didn't try to rescue her daughter in time, or even regretting or saying she's sorry her inactions consigned her daughter to grow up almost certainly unhappy in anti-women Gilead. Even when she sees a photograph of her daughter in her new life, she only wonders whether her daughter remembers her, but doesn't wonder at all whether she is happy or doing well or anything. But I digress.

    **This time it’s a real word. It means “silly and laughable affair that dominated the news headlines for months and effectively distracted people from other affairs and misled them on what was going on in THIS affair.” Not that that’s a dictionary definition.

    More proof was supplied after the Gusher in the Gulf began, and so did the comedy routine of the Three Stooges of this episode: BP is Moe (in charge), the Oilbama government is Larry (subservient), the media/reporters is Curly. Or maybe Curly is supporters of Obama? Maybe Presidential polling data should not be taken seriously, contains no data about what people actually think and want (asking people what policies they want has some meaning), but nevertheless, it was disheartening that Joke-Barfa’s approval rating had actually gone up again! I would have thought that, especially since April 20, it would have gone down even faster than free fall, like in the movies when the hero with a jet-pack or rocket-pack on his back flies down even faster than gravity would pull him.

    But apparently Oilbama supporters exempt politicians from the writer’s rule “Show, don’t tell”, because they were just pleased as punch by his Public Relations efforts for BP. The fact that he disguised his skin color by taking a swim in the Gulf to disguise himself and learned how to correctly pronounce “nuclear” was all it took to make Oilbama supporters ignore the fact that, when it comes to actions rather than words, Joke-Barfa and Prexy Bush are almost impossible to distinguish from each other. (And in many ways, like military policy and war, Joke-barfa’s administration is even more ruthless and calculated in its policy of aggression than the previous Prexy’s.)

    Although those of us who know that actions speak louder than words know that when the atrocious Obama Administration says it “can’t win every fight” it means “We don’t actually fight any fights,” it is seriously distressing that many people who think words speak louder than actions still seriously believe that Obama has actually been fighting and even trying his hardest in the face of republicans acting like two-year olds, that Obama genuinely cares and the only reason he has been unable to do most of what he promised is because he has met with nothing but resistance and kicking and screaming every step of the way, that even though his term is not half over yet he has already done a lot more than he is given credit for and he’s had to fight for every inch of it and that he will get a lot more good things done before his turn is over, and that Obama is the best leader they will get in their lifetime and they are happy with that.

    That attitude makes me want to projectile-vomit. Such people sing this song about the atrocious Obama Administration:

    “I will go down with this ship
    And I won’t put my hands up and surrender
    There will be no white flag above my door
    I’m in love and always will be”

    I instead sing this song about it:

    “You’re not half the man you think you are
    Save your words because you’ve gone too far
    I’ve listened to your lies and all your stories
    You’re not half the man you’d like to be”

    Ironically, “White Flag” is actually one of my favorite songs in the romantic context as opposed to the political context. And the Madonna song is chock full of more good lines about Obama, like:

    “Don’t explain yourself ’cause talk is cheap
    There’s more important things than hearing you speak”

    I don’t remember Obama ever saying I’m sorry or forgive me for anything, though.

    It very much sounds as if Thoreau was talking about Obama and his supposed eloquence, all talk and no action: “The word which is best said came nearest to not being spoken at all, for it is cousin to a deed which the speaker could have better done.”

    But even Oilbama supporters who are Oblivious with a capital O, who obey the words of Marx (Groucho, not Karl) when Joke-Barfa says “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”, who obey the words from the old movie The Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", even they must be feeling a little defensive and pressured and unable to continue to ignore the bad consequences of his policies, because the Gusher in the Gulf is just too big to ignore, it’s heartbreaking, and so they are moving along the optimism spectrum from “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it” to “Lie back and enjoy it”. (While the 92,000 secret documents on the Afghanistan war already or to be released by WikiLeaks are easy to ignore.) They must be starting to know, deep down in their very heart of hearts, that they are at least accomplices to rape.


    So action is called for: the ineffective action of clicking with a mouse! In the words of the old Tom Lehrer song “Folk Song Army”:

    “If you’ve got dissatisfaction
    Strum your frustrations away
    Some people may prefer action
    But gimme a folk song any old day”*

    *Again, colloquial grammar. “If you have dissatisfaction” and “Give me a folk song any old day” are better. As the song explains in a different line, “It sounds more ethnic if it ain’t good English”.

    I have never forgotten a Christmas episode of The Smurfs cartoon from the 1980s in which the Smurfs really did form a Folk Song Army, singing something like “Goodness makes the badness go away, Bad things never start when there’s goodness in your heart.” And when that didn’t work, they sang it again and louder! Finally when it was loud enough, the bad guy vanished, the kids were freed, and Christmas was saved. In addition to its message of singing rather than taking action, the content of the song itself was a terrible blame-the-victim message, basically telling kids, “Whenever anything bad ever happens to you, it’s your fault because you’re not good enough!”

    Such liberal fantasies remind me of the magical thinking that characterized anti-war protests in the 1960s, like the incredible idea that surrounding the Pentagon chanting “Out, demon, out” brought that scene in Saigon at the American Embassy with the helicopter in 1975 even one day sooner than it actually occurred. What was needed from the people was around 2 or 3 orders of magnitude more than was forthcoming, which is why it didn’t work, but liberal fantasies today reminisce about how the anti-war protests in the 1960s ended the Vietnam War in 1975. Such magical thinking continues today, when what is needed from the people is around 2 or 3 orders of magnitude even more than what was needed in the 1960s, but what we get from them is Facebook rallies that may or may not even occur! (Here in Luxembourg in early 2010, a protest rally that was organized and signed on to over Facebook was cancelled when nobody actually showed up.) If Edmund Burke had been alive in the 21st century, he might have said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing more than click their mouse on an online petition."

    It’s not just folk songs, exorcism, and Facebook rallies, though. What could be a more powerful protest of the Vietnam war than setting yourself on fire and burning yourself to death in front of the Secretary of State’s office? And yet, who could say with a straight face that doing that in 1964 ended the war 11 years later? But people do. Of course, you can always say that it was one of the straws that eventually broke the camel’s back. But as Carl Sagan said in a very different context, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The only movements that have REALLY ended their countries’ participation in wars were Russia 1917 and Germany 1918. The movement in the U.S. in the 1960s was a very far cry from them. Interesting that the movement in Russia BEGAN with deaths, Black Sunday in 1905, while the movement in the U.S. ENDED with deaths, Kent State in 1970. (Actually, there were a few protests in 1970 after Kent State, but the last one, the Chicano Moritorium in August, also had deaths.)

    The book by Naomi Wolf, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot* is very short and well worth reading; it is a good precis summarizing the writing on the wall supporting worries of a coming loss of freedom in the United States, and goes into detail about "echoes" or similarities between what has happened in the U.S. and what happened in six other countries in the 20th century in which free "open" societies became unfree "closed" ones.

    *Of course, the main title of that book is like a lightning rod for right-wing nuts to say aha, we knew all along you hated America and were cheerleading for its end. So I would just as soon have skipped that main title and gone with the subtitle as the name of the book.

    But the fact that, as I noted above, even though she talks about her young kids Wolf shows no awareness of the further question: “Why haven't you gotten your kids out of there?” is only one of the two frustrating things I found about the book. The other, and bigger, one is this: while it does a great job explaining why we SHOULD get mad as hell before it's too late, the ACTION it recommends is (drum roll, please): asking Congress to intervene! “Ready! Aim! Sing!” Obviously, much more action is required than that: the Democratic Congress and Prexy that have been elected since Wolf’s book was written are obviously doing nothing to go against the interests of the capitalist ruling class and are obviously incapable of doing so.*

    *In an episode of the TV series “The Prisoner” the main character, who has been elected leader of the Village after a farcical campaign in which he was hypnotized to talk like a typical politician but who has suddenly snapped out of it and returned to his normal self, immediately turned off the prison defenses that were keeping the Village’s inhabitants imprisoned and announced over the loudspeakers that everyone was free to go. Not only did this have no effect on the behavior of the inhabitants, but thugs quickly appeared to beat the main character senseless and drag him away. Similarly, if by some wild chance somebody were elected president who was seriously and sincerely determined to go against the interests of the capitalist ruling class, he or she would be as powerless to do so as the character in this scene of The Prisoner. She or he would announce over the loudspeakers, “I am abolishing capitalism right now” and the thugs would then beat him or her up and drag her or him away.

    Furthermore, even if a well-intentioned Congress and Prexy spent the next 8 years repealing everything that was done under Prexy Bush II's watch, the BEST that could happen is that we would go back to the paradise that was 2000. Don't get me wrong, compared to now, 2000 was paradise in America, but compared to how things COULD be, it falls rather short. Besides, "Back to 2000!" doesn't sound like all that hot a campaign slogan, even for somebody like Oilbama; it is just too obviously reactionary. No, what is required is that people in America go further and demand more, that the revolution that is (in the words of Noam Chomsky) "just below the surface" in the U.S. come out and actualize itself.

    Remember that famous quotation from several years ago on the "reality-based community"* that led to everybody commenting on it and bragging that they were members of the "reality-based community" and their opponents were "faith-based" and thought that they "created their own reality" when real reality would trip those arrogant bastards up and so on? The uproarious flood of liberal commentators “proudly proclaiming” that they belonged to the “reality-based community” cast into sharp relief the resounding silence on what was I think the main part of that quotation, that the right wing acts and does things and the left wing just observes and studies and talks and does nothing. Seriously, how many decades ago was the last time a liberal actually did anything that wasn’t purely symbolic?** Even those demonstration strikes in Greece and Spain and Portugal and so on the past few months were just symbolic, they accomplished nothing and they didn’t even slow down the pace, let alone stop, the self-proclaimed “socialist” governments from rapidly passing one austerity measure after another as demanded by the international financial investor speculator capitalist class. For all my vast language skills at understanding those languages, the strikers and demonstrators might as well have been chanting and singing “We are the Folk Song Army.” The indefinite fighting truck drivers’ strike in Greece that started on July 26, 2010, was more like it! (Too bad they voted August 1 to call off the strike, thanks to the “pseudo-left” national trade union leadership isolating their struggle from the other workers.)

    *I found it on Wikipedia, so here it is: an October 17, 2004, New York Times Magazine article by writer Ron Suskind was quoting an unnamed aide to George W. Bush: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ ... ‘That's not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

    **Except, in some countries, being tortured and murdered. But not in the United States.

    A one-day demonstration strike doesn’t pose a threat to anybody. Maybe that’s the difference between an effective and an ineffective action: whether it actually poses a threat to the capitalist class. Whether it really, seriously threatens their power in some way. Like it took a few years for the capitalists in Venezuela to realize that Hugo Chavez and the “Bolivarian Revolution” posed no real threat to them, so they stopped seriously trying to crush him and it. (I go into more detail about this below.) Neither have the endless splits, factionalistic disputes, new and old acronyms, etc., etc., over the past several decades ever posed the slightest bit of threat to the capitalist class.*

    *The Monty Python movie "The Life of Brian" (to anyone who hasn't seen that movie, I highly recommend it) contains several references to such “splitters”; in the movie, the anti-Roman resistance was splintered and factionalized into the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, the Popular Front of Judea, etc. When two anti-Roman pro-Judean groups are arguing with each other with sectarian zeal after they have broken into a Roman palace, Brian reminds them to stop them, "We must unite against the common enemy!" The groups with sudden insight exclaim, "The Judean People's Front!" Brian says, "No, no, the Romans!"

    A line from “The Life and Times of Multivac” by Isaac Asimov, a science fiction story in which humans grumble and talk about rebelling against Multivac’s benevolent tyranny, seems relevant: “Multivac indifferently permitted talk of any kind, precisely because talk was unimportant. It was only acts that Multivac prevented, or punished.” When one human really does act to overthrow Multivac, after appearing to betray his fellow humans to place himself in a suitable position to do so, the other humans appear to have just been talking after all and not only not really wanting to undertake actual action themselves but not really wanting anyone else to either:

    “Before him, the images of the 14 men and women of Congress were still there and each seemed to be stupefied at the sudden, enormous thing that had happened.

    “Bakst said, ‘Multivac is shut down, burned out. It can’t be rebuilt.’ He felt almost drunk at the sound of what he was saying. ‘I have worked toward this since I left you. When Hines attacked, I feared there might be other such efforts, that Multivac would double its guard, that even I … I had to work quickly … I wasn’t sure …’ He was gasping, but forced himself steady, and said solemnly: ‘I have given us our freedom.’

    “And he paused, aware at last of the gathering weight of the silence. Fourteen images stared at him, without any of them offering a word in response.

    “Bakst said sharply, ‘You have talked of freedom. You have it!’

    “Then, uncertainly, he said, ‘Isn’t that what you want?’”

    Not to single out Hugo Chavez and the leaders of the PSUV in Venezuela, I have the feeling that very many supposed leaders of resistance against capitalism (especially leaders of “pseudo-left” organizations like the union leaders in Greece and other countries) would react similarly if people really took action to make capitalism fall.

    Number of posts : 16
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    Re: “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”

    Post  RJHall on Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:07 pm

    PART 3


    Arguably the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela is an interesting example of a country moving toward socialism—of course, only if it is graded on a curve rather than on a percentage.* In a recent interview with Cindy Sheehan, Hugo Chavez admitted that Venezuela was still only 10% of the way to socialism. Among the very many questions I would have liked to ask Chavez, this one occurred to me as a follow-up that I wish Sheehan had asked: “You’ve been in power over 10 years and it’s still only 10%? So does that mean that it will take over 90 more years to achieve socialism? Or would it take even longer, since presumably the part you’ve already done is the easiest part and the harder parts will be even slower? So, no socialism in my, your, or anybody else’s lifetime, even though you used to claim that ‘socialism for the 21st century’ would be achieved by 2021? Do you think humanity has the luxury to wait for it then?” I would then remind Chavez of his own words from the World Social Forum a few years back: “I believe that when Marx coined that phrase [“Socialism or death”], he was very clear about what he was saying, and so was Rosa Luxemburg; but when they said it, I believe that they had the luxury of thinking about in future centuries …. I think they saw a margin of time for action. But equally, I believe that our margin for action has narrowed, that we haven't much time; I believe that we do not have the luxury to talk about future centuries; I believe – this may sound a little dramatic, but I believe it to be true – that we have reached the century in which the dilemma, a dilemma recognized by scientists and thinkers, will be resolved.” (Of course, as the quotation at the beginning of this essay showed, neither Marx nor Rosa were thinking of future centuries; both believed the revolution was imminent in their times. And I thought it was Rosa who coined that phrase, or rather a similar one.**)

    *That is, only if it is compared with what governments in other countries are doing, rather than with what ideally it SHOULD be doing. In U.S. schools, grading on a curve means to compare the students with each other and give the highest ones the top grade and so on according to a bell curve, while grading on a percentage means to ignore the other students and grade each one according to the amount of points they could have scored.

    **Near the very beginning of the most famous of the many things that Marx and Engels wrote, the Communist Manifesto, they said that class struggle would either end by moving up to the next stage or else destruction ("either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes"). (Incidentally, this shows that the usual belief that socialists and Marxists in particular say that socialism and communism are inevitable stages of human society and that capitalism must inevitably yield to those stages and the world and humans will live happily ever after in this paradise is actually a misunderstanding. Despite what many of Marx's followers and critics say, Marx was not quite so optimistic, and said that socialism was NECESSARY (to cure the evils arising from capitalism) but not INEVITABLE and that human society could either move up to it or down to destruction.) Rosa made this implied choice of alternatives more explicit in What Does The Spartacus League Want? (1918) by coining the phrase: “Socialism or barbarism!” Speaking for myself, it sure looks more and more like the "common ruin of the contending classes" is humanity's future rather than "revolutionary reconstruction of society at large". But you never know. Socialism or bust! Socialism is not just a good idea, it's our only hope. Better red than dead. Socialism is our future, build it now. Etc.!

    In the early years, I for one was following the Chavez experiment in Venezuela very closely indeed. The United States government has poured literally millions of taxpayer dollars over the past few years into the opposition to Chavez and backed the very-short-lived coup in April 2002 and the longer-lived employer lockout and economic shutdown in December 2002 to February 2003 and the recall referendum in 2004. But it is telling that the opposition has been mostly words, not actions, since then. The farcical 2006 presidential election campaign featured an opposition candidate who laughably claimed that his signature on the “Carmona Decree” of the 2002 coup was simply a youthful indiscretion; he obviously wasn’t even seriously trying to win. It appears that the lack of serious opposition to Hugo Chavez from the oligarchy the past 6 years is due to their (correct) estimation that the “Bolivarian Revolution” is no real threat to them after all. “As long as our profits continue to increase and we can shoot workers and peasants with impunity and without any repercussions, then we are really fine with the Bolivarian Revolution, though of course to keep up the show we will continue to loudly oppose it in words.” The recent increased tensions between Columbia and Venezuela are being stoked by Washington, not by the Venezuela bourgeoisie (though the latter loudly and heatedly verbally support Columbia and Washington).

    Though there has indeed been some action in the “Bolivarian Revolution”, it seems clear that it is mostly talk. In particular, the person of Hugo Chavez himself is more talk than action in the direction of socialism. And ever notice how for 11 years now Chavez has often verbally threatened to cut off oil to the United States but has never actually dared to even decrease the amount of oil?* And yet, most activists in Venezuela who complain about the Venezuelan government bureaucracy and the “bolibourgoisie” and so on seem to be exempting the person of Hugo Chavez himself from their criticisms. Several years ago I read of one activist who spoke of a “dual power” situation in Venezuela, comparing it to Russia between February 1917 and October 1917, who then specifically and explicitly refused to cast Chavez as Kerensky. Chavez means well but unfortunately does not control what his government does. Now this attitude reminds me exactly of how supporters talk about Barfack Joke-barfa today! Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama, despite the admitted vast difference between them, are similar in this respect. Maybe the main (admittedly not the only) difference between them is that, in the first few years, the elite in Venezuela genuinely considered Chavez to be a threat to their power and privilege, while the elite in the U.S. NEVER genuinely considered Oilbama to be a threat.

    *Although in public of course U.S. officials always react negatively to these threats, I imagine that in private they imitate little children saying sarcastically, “Ooo, I’m so scared!” And anyway, since when has a sustainable society depended on constantly raping the earth for oil or anything else? The slogan “Leave the oil in the soil,” which has been supported by activists all over the world, is not supported by most activists in Venezuela for some reason.

    There is a passage in The Russian Revolution in which Rosa eerily seems to predict that the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela will hang on for a few years and then backslide (and that the “Weimar Republic” in Germany would hang on for a few years and then backslide to Nazism): “The ‘golden mean’ cannot be maintained in any revolution. The law of its nature demands a quick decision: either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back of its own weight again to the starting point at the bottom; and those who would keep it with their weak powers half way up the hill, it drags down with it irredeemably into the abyss. Thus it is clear that in every revolution only that party capable of seizing the leadership and power which has the courage to issue the appropriate watch-words for driving the revolution ahead, and the courage to draw all the necessary conclusions from the situation. This makes clear, too, the miserable role of the Russian Mensheviks, the Dans, Zeretellis, etc., who had enormous influence on the masses at the beginning, but, after their prolonged wavering and after they had fought with both hands and feet against taking over power and responsibility, were driven ignobly off the stage.”

    But I digress.


    So why am I so pessimistic about the future of humanity? Humanity is facing what I call the five E’s of crisis or (“cris-E’s”): Economy, Environment, Energy, Empire, Enlightenment.


    There is an excellent pamphlet from the International Luxemburgist Network, “For a Worker’s Recovery Plan – The Causes and Cures of a New Great Depression”, which details how the current economic crisis confirms or is at least consistent with Rosa’s Accumulation of Capital. Most of the recent socialistic economic analysis I have seen seems pretty good but completely ignores Accumulation of Capital, implying by omission that the idea that capitalism needs to expand into and exploit noncapitalistic consumers or else it will be brought down in a crisis has been thoroughly refuted and so need not be mentioned.

    The almost 60-year-old book by Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, does discuss Accumulation of Capital but states that it was wrong because it would mean that capitalism is impossible if it does not expand to another new market each and every single year to find new consumers for its surplus production or else it would collapse immediately. But of course she didn’t mean such a simplistic exaggeration as that! This objection is another example of an “I went to school one day last week” objection. But capitalism does indeed have that tendency and will (and has?) collapse sooner or later if it cannot keep temporarily postponing its contradictions by expanding to new markets.

    (The Theory of Capitalist Development also cites and quotes Stalin. OK, it’s understandable, it was 1941 and the USSR was “our” ally in the war, but still.)

    In the Anti-Critique (the second of her two books with the main title “The Accumulation of Capital”), Rosa said something that might (mind you I said “might”) be overly optimistic:

    “But by this process capital prepares its own destruction in two ways. As it approaches the point where humanity only consists of capitalists and proletarians, further accumulation will become impossible. At the same time, the absolute and undivided rule of capital aggravates class struggle throughout the world and the international economic and political anarchy to such an extent that, long before the last consequences of economic development, it must lead to the rebellion of the international proletariat against the existence of the rule of capital.”

    In other words, the revolution will occur long before the capitalistic economy completely collapses. The collapse isn’t complete yet today (if it were, the Internet would be down and I couldn’t post this), but the revolution, just as in the past few decades*, is still little more than a gleam in its father’s eye.

    *Nothing is more disheartening than old optimism from the past.


    This includes not just the obvious environmental problems of climate change and global warming, but also species extinction, habit destruction, pollution of land, air, and water, etc., etc., ad nauseam. As I said above, if Thoreau were alive today he’d definitely consider today’s Earth “hell”.

    The TECHNICAL problems are not hard to solve. In "An Inconvenient Truth", Al Gore says that humanity already has everything needed to solve the problems except for "political will", which he calls there a "renewable resource". Actually, I think Al Gore is definitely (no “might” this time) being too optimistic in thinking that the current system is capable of solving the problems, any more than it is capable of solving other problems that everyone knows darn well can be solved but won't be, like worldwide poverty and famine and disease and billions of people not having access to clean drinking water. When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat every problem like a nail; and so problems that can't be solved by banging on them simply won't be solved as long as you insist on clinging to the hammer.

    The failure of the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t because it was the politicians who introduced in it things like "emission sinks" (getting pollution credits for watching your forests grow) and "emissions trading" (getting pollution credits by buying them on the market) while the capitalists were beseeching them on bended knee, "No, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE stop us from polluting, don't let us get away with emissions credits and trading but please make us stop polluting, oh PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE," but the politicians callously ignored the capitalists and rejected their dire pleadings. Of course it didn't happen like that. Kyoto's predecessor, the early 1990s UNFCCC ("United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change") had consisted of merely voluntary targets on emissions, which everybody knew wasn't working, and so the politicians SAID that a protocol to that agreement was needed that imposed "legally binding" emissions limits. It was the capitalists who shot what the politicians had SAID full of holes, by making them put in the emission sinks and trading and even change "legally binding" to the lesser "politically binding". So much for the wisdom and ability of capitalists to address the problem. And such was the power of the capitalists' interests that Bill Clinton didn't even bother to send this much weakened version of Kyoto, which he (through Gore) had signed, to the Senate for ratification, because the capitalists would just plain not accept even the shot-full-of-holes Kyoto. Not, of course, that I'm a big fan of the politicians either, since by the common principle of "Actions speak louder than words", what they SAID never made a great deal of difference, since they never REALLY intended to bite the hands that feed them.


    There is much in the bookstores and on the Internet about “peak oil” as if this were a new phenomenon to be worried about. But a 1974 lecture by Isaac Asimov called “The Future of Humanity” (which is also on the Internet) not only talked about the issue but described how a science fiction story called "The Man Who Awoke" by Lawrence Manning had made Asimov aware of the issue since Asimov was 13 years old.

    “Heck, when I read that when I was thirteen, I started thinking. I didn't think in syllogisms then, but I now realize as I look back on it, that it amounted to a syllogism.

    “Major premise: The Earth's volume is finite Minor Premise: The total volume of coal and oil on the Earth is less than the total volume of the Earth Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil are finite.

    “You would think that this was so obvious! Now, let's start and make this conclusion the major premise of the next syllogism:

    “Major Premise: The volume of coal and oil are finite Minor Premise: We are burning some every day Conclusion: We will use it all up eventually

    “Well, I got that in 1933. And so you see how science fiction helps you escape. It helps you escape to the kinds of problems that'll keep you worried for forty years. [group laughs mildly] Before the rest of you guys!”

    The Asimov lecture didn’t discuss global warming, but it did describe what is now known as “Global Dimming”*, a phenomenon whereby aerosol pollution actually masks the apparent effects of global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space, making it seem like the world is cooler than it would be if something – like the petrocollapse of civilization after a Peak Oil crash or even the grounding of airplanes for a few days after 9/11 – made it stop and “disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is”, in the words of James Lovelock (most famous as the inventor of the “Gaia Hypothesis”).

    *It sounds like a metaphor, right? "And when Prexy Bush was appointed to power, a wave of global dimming spread through the land, enshrouding the beacons of reason in a dark, gloomy night." Something like that!

    Here is a question that has started to disturb me: if Marx is right that material economic mode of production is the base underlying history,* and that socialism is made possible by the material production reaching a certain high stage, then what does the issue of peak oil mean for the feasibility of socialism? That is, once humanity hits petrocollapse and fossil fuels and so much else (e.g., electricity, metals, etc.) become prohibitively expensive or unavailable, wouldn’t that mean that the productive base necessary for socialism has been undermined and become impossible? If humanity’s material base hits its peak and goes down again, would that mean that the next phase would be feudalism or slavery again rather than socialism? Would humanity retain the ability to solve continent-wide and even global problems after capitalism finishes burning up the planet’s resources? It looks like the two E’s of the Environmental and Energy Crises place real tension on accomplishing the socialistic ideal; if the lack of abundant energy forces humans back into small-village life, then the best that could be hoped for along those lines is that whatever egalitarian, secular, socialist villages emerge from the smoking remains of the Earth will not immediately be overrun by the angry and hungry other 7 billion people.

    *Karl Marx of course coined and championed "historical materialism", the core view on understanding society that it is the hard economic materialist interests that are the "base" or "foundation" of society and everything else, the laws and the customs and the institutions and the government and so on, is mere "superstructure" that can be varied and interesting but can never be inconsistent with the base. My favorite metaphor in thinking about "superstructure" and "base" is a TV series and being a fan of it. All the stuff you get from watching the show itself, its plot and characters and story and interactions and settings and scenarios and so on, are the "superstructure". The "base" is underlying stuff like which actor's contract wasn't renewed and whether the show is making or losing money. For example, if you just follow the "superstructure", even closely and intently like a fan, then a character's suddenly leaving the show without warning can hit you like an unexpected bolt from the blue. But if you follow the "base" and know that an actor's contract wasn't renewed, then, even though you might not know exactly how the show's "superstructure" will rationalize or explain that fact, you will know for sure that that event is definitely coming.


    By the Crisis of Empire I mean the increase of imperialism, militarism, aggression, and war we see all over the world. The increasing invasions and bombings and flailings of the American Empire as it loses its power are only the most obvious example.

    Here's a less obvious example since it hasn’t happened yet, a cheery thought: What's to stop at least one (probably dozens or hundreds) Dick-Cheney-type saying defiantly, as the victory of humanity (which the Dick-Cheney-type would certainly equate with, as incidentally do I, the victory of the revolution) seems imminent, "I'd rather destroy the world than let the commies win" and launching the nukes or the virus or whatever? This would put a full stop to humanity with the same utter finality with which a period puts a full stop to a sentence. All the words written by Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. (none of whom even imagined that scenario, of course, but we can: what if Tsar Nicholas or Kaiser Wilhelm* had had the bomb alternative to abdication?) are answered irrefutably by that possibility, which, when I think about it, seems almost a certainty in exactly the same way that flipping 50,000 coins will almost certainly result in at least one "head", with only wishful thinking justifying any hope at all that all 50,000 of them will without exception come up "tails". (The 50,000 is, of course, not just counting the guys at the top but also all of their subordinates who have control of weapons of mass destruction, à la General Jack D. Ripper in the movie Doctor Strangelove.) Socialism is not just a good idea, it's our only hope; but having even just one world-destroyer say "I'd rather destroy the world than let the commies win" is like the ultimate abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here. It would just take one (and again, there'd probably be dozens or hundreds) and it's Game Over, dude. The Internationale or "Imagine" or whatever songs or music you like would suddenly come to a screeching halt with a noise like the phonograph needle being scratchily removed from the record.

    *In early November 1918, when revolts and riots of the German sailors and soldiers reached Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm "talked of the impertinence of his subjects towards their King and the need, if necessary, to repress them with 'smoke-bombs, gas, bombing squadrons and flamethrowers!' General Groener told him bluntly: 'Sire, you no longer have an army'." (Rob Sewell, Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution.) Is there any doubt that, if Kaiser Wilhelm had just had a button to push instead of needing a loyal army, he might have pushed it? As for Tsar Nicholas, he too lacked a loyal army in February 1917: "It would be no exaggeration to say that Petrograd achieved the February Revolution. The rest of the country adhered to it. There was no struggle anywhere except in Petrograd. There were not to be found anywhere in the country any groups of the population, any parties, institutions, or military units which were ready to fight for the old regime. This shows how ill-founded was the belated talk of the reactionaries to the effect that if there had been cavalry of the Guard in the Petersburg garrison, or if Ivanov had brought a reliable brigade from the front, the fate of the monarchy would have been different. Neither at the front nor at the rear was there a brigade or regiment to be found which was prepared to do battle for Nicholas II." (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p. 158.)

    And that’s IF the victory of humanity (the revolution) ever seems imminent. I suspect it won’t even get that far — assuming it isn’t already too late. (And if it don’t happen soon, it ain’t never gonna happen.)

    Again, this E might also combine with and be amplified by the Energy Crisis. After years of the corporations, politicians, and mainstream media keeping a tight lid on the issue of Peak Oil, the Wall Street Journal has finally recently mentioned this idea. My guess is that the elites are preparing the U.S. public for more oil wars – after the public is fed into a “we need to attack more countries to get the oil we need and are running out of” frenzy, it will be easier to get them to support militarily attacking Venezuela or Iran or whomever – or should I say, AND whomever. And the first E, the Economic Crisis, conveniently supplies the “economic draft” needed to have more soldiers and more wars.


    I will say more about this fifth E since it’s not as obvious as the other four. By this I mean that there seems to have been a decrease in people’s knowledge and ability of critical thinking. Examples of this are easy to come up with. Just a few decades ago children played time-consuming games with complicated rules like “Monopoly” and “Scrabble”; now those games are for adults and kids need faster, easier games like “Monopoly Junior” and “Scrabble Junior”. A century ago kids would read long and sophisticated books like “Alice in Wonderland”; today, again, such books are read by adults, and kids get simplified Disney versions or picture books. Many books from the 19th century cannot be understood by even educated adults today unless they are heavily annotated to make up the difference between a 19th century education and a 20th century education, for example "Thoreau's ideal reader was expected to be well versed in Greek and Latin, poetry, and travel narrative, and politically engaged in current affairs. Hyde's detailed annotations clarify many of Thoreau's references ...." For the past few years email on the Internet has circulated setting out a grade-school examination from around 150 years ago that would be difficult for college-educated adults of today to answer well. Even people educated in, say, history today think relatively little about it: they know the main names, dates and events, but not the reasons, causes and consequences of history.* Nineteenth century chess masters were broadly and generally educated and cultured and played chess as one of their many hobbies, while today they are specialists who study chess 10 hours a day and are not only unstudied but are positively uninterested in other subjects. In the 1970s astronomer Carl Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize for a book (The Dragons of Eden) that was not about astronomy, and Isaac Asimov in his lifetime wrote almost 500 books, but nothing like this is happening these days. Probably everybody has their own anecdotes about cashiers who did not know how to add or subtract or make change; some cash registers have pictures of fast food on the buttons so that employees who can use and remember numbers are no longer needed. And so on.

    *In another episode of “The Prisoner” the main character, who had just undergone a history lesson using the “Speed Learn” technique, was asked “What was the treaty of Adrianople?” The character answers “September 1829”, since the lesson had stressed this and he had memorized it. He was then told, “I said What, not When.”

    It is drearily common to hear people say that the education system is “failing” in its mission to educate people even in the basic “3 R’s” of “Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.” (And just how smart is the person who first said that those three words begin with R?) But of course under modern capitalism that is not the mission of the industrial school system, which is actually splendidly succeeding in its real mission of creating industrial factory workers.* The real three basic things that industrial schools teach are: showing up on time, following orders while there, and not leaving until the final signal. The school-learned habits of watching the clock and enduring boring routine will (and are meant to) last for decades, as will the attitudes of hating Mondays and impatiently awaiting the weekend. And how many people want to endure hours of this and then go home and read a complicated book or study complicated subjects? Of course industrial schooling also encourages the habit of “vegging out” in front of the television. It was recently reported that the average American TV viewer watches four hours and 49 minutes a day! If you include video games like Wii and Nintendo, and Facebook and the like, another recent report stated that 8-18 year-olds in the U.S. use “entertainment media” an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day! “And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.”

    *Similarly, it is also drearily common to hear people repeat the truism that the mission of news media is theoretically to research, investigate, and present the truth to its audience, regardless of whether the truth is favorable or unfavorable, popular or unpopular, consistent or inconsistent with government policy and propaganda, and then lament about how the news media is unfortunately “failing” in this mission. But the words expressing the supposed “mission” are even more obviously false, and the real mission of the news media is to make profits for the owners. People who sanctimoniously say, “Ethical reporters should not distort their stories in an effort to be popular or sell newspapers” are actually confessing: “I have absolutely no idea how capitalism works.” Whereas people who disgustingly attack WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (who apparently really is an ethical reporter) as an “enemy of open society” (and now even a rapist!) and his acts of publishing 92,000 secret documents on the war in Afghanistan as “information vandalism” that was “part of a PR strategy” “aimed at raising the profile of WikiLeaks and securing donations to finance the website” are basically saying: “Please, boss, don’t fire me, not only do I know how capitalism works but I want to be in that number!”

    Some adults complain that sometimes very young children are being deliberately inculcated with values like include caring, sharing, empathy, kindness, and generosity, instead of strength, self-reliance, respect, and self-control: competition is bad; sharing is good. For example, teachers telling children who lose a game that they are really winners in some special way.

    But to quote Howard Zinn, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When you’re surrounded by a massive river going in one direction, you don’t try to float in one place, even if that seems somehow fair and neutral; instead, you have to try to swim against the current, even if that seems somehow unfair and biased.

    Maybe it’s easier to understand in the context of creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution. When children are surrounded on all sides by implicit or explicit ideas of God and Jesus and creationism, then you don’t respond by presenting both ID and evolution in the science classroom, even if that seems somehow fair and neutral; instead, you present just evolution in the science classroom, a respite and refuge from the church.

    Very young children are exposed on all sides to values promoting strength and competition: every time they go to school, every time they play sports, every time they go to the store, every time they ride in a car (especially if, during the ride, the driver makes any comments about other drivers or seekers of parking spaces), and almost every time they turn on the TV. If, a tiny fraction of the time they turn on the TV, they are exposed instead to values in the other direction, sharing and generosity and so on, then that might be a nice respite and refuge too.

    No, my problem isn’t with presenting the emotional underpinnings of socialism as such; my problem is with presenting them in such a way as to set up a “straw man”, something that, as children grow older and more mature, they will see as wrong and silly and so throw out the baby with the bathwater and reject it altogether. Sure, the fact that some adults clearly can’t handle rejection shows that some little kids NEVER really grow up and get mature; but that’s not the most insidious effect. The most insidious effect is on the adults that DO grow up and get mature, since they see all the childhood teachings of inclusion and emotional acceptance as silly and childish and so renounce all of them and go for the opposite extreme, believing that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and that all other people are just competitors for everything and that the “mature” thing to do is to do whatever it takes to crush them. This kind of mentality is all too obvious in the Republican Party and the U.S. Government.

    There is a certain cliché done in movies for adults as well as children: At the end of many, many, many movies, from kids' movies like The Lion King to adult movies like The Postman, the good guy and the bad guy are having their climactic fight at the end when the good guy wins and the bad guy is at his mercy. The good guy then nobly and magnanimously and ostentatiously refuses to stoop to the bad guy's level and spares the bad guy's life. Then the bad guy always tries to kill the good guy immediately (the moment the good guy's back is turned), but through nothing but good luck the good guy survives and the bad guy just happens to die anyway for some unrelated reason (like his henchmen kill him). This "happy ending" is so ubiquitous in Hollywood movies that I can only think offhand of one deviation from it: in Star Trek III, when Kirk has the Klingon at his mercy after the climactic fight, Kirk kills him.

    The insidious “straw man” effect of Smurf Christmas cartoons, encouraging sharing values in children, and cinematic climactic confrontations that almost always end up with the good guy being naïve and rewarded by great good luck, since people will eventually conclude that only by not being naïve, by being cruel and ruthless and REALLY lowering yourself to the bad guy’s level, can a truly mature person really prevail, I even see in perhaps the most widespread lie that adults tell young children, that Santa Claus exists. The details and rationalizations of the Santa Claus story are so ridiculous that upon growing up and maturing people can reject it as childish lock, stock, and barrel (except that Republicans never lose the wet dream about seeing people when they’re sleeping and knowing when they’re awake! Smile ) , including the bits about sharing and caring and helping and deserving and so on (Republicans like Ann Coulter et al. never tire of ridiculing liberals and farther-leftists as childish believers in Santa Claus-type mythology).

    When I was a child, I DID go home and read complicated books and studied complicated subjects after enduring hours of industrial schooling, though I knew I was not typical. For example, the books of Isaac Asimov* and Carl Sagan were numerous enough to almost dominate the thinking and reading of my teenage self, and they really influenced my thinking and rescued my teenage self from the dreariness of school. When I went to university, I never even started majors in astronomy or science or anything Asimov and Sagan inspired me in, because I could IMMEDIATELY tell from the university classes I took in those fields that they couldn't live up to the books, which were just too good. Instead, inspired by the books of the less prolific authors Douglas R. Hofstadter and Raymond Smullyan, I majored in other subjects, but was very quickly disappointed to find that the classes I had to take in those subjects were STILL nowhere near as interesting as the books that had inspired me to study them! Reading the books had been fun, but the classes soon became less fun and more work. There is a passage in his recent book "I Am A Strange Loop" that struck a chord with me in which Hofstadter described that, although he had loved and been great at mathematics in school, at university his math classes got harder and harder until he eventually hit a wall in which he could not do them any more. I had felt exactly the same way about my own university math classes, except the metaphor I had used for my own experience was that of hitting a ceiling instead of a wall. Studying these subjects at university ruined them for me, with the result that after I graduated I was so tired of them that I went on to study something completely different and went to law school, starting the second phase of my mature existence (the first one was computer and math whiz; the second one was court attorney; coming to Europe started my third and current one of bank office employee). There was another passage in a Smullyan book (I think "This Book Needs No Title") that related that after completing his university studies, Einstein was so sick of studying physics that he could not bear to even think about physical problems for a year. Fortunately, Einstein was able to think about them again after he started his phase of being a patent office employee.

    *Indeed, Asimov was SO prolific and so varied that philosophy is the only category in the Dewey Decimal System he didn't write books in! In his lifetime Asimov wrote or edited 463 books, though if you include all his charts and newly titled editions and co-edited collections it goes up to 509. About his books he once said, "What I will be remembered for are the Foundation Trilogy and the Three Laws of Robotics. What I want to be remembered for is no one book, or no dozen books. Any single thing I have written can be paralleled or even surpassed by something someone else has done. However, my total corpus for quantity, quality and variety can be duplicated by no one else. That is what I want to be remembered for."

    The Enlightenment Crisis has been building for decades. The end of World War II and the beginning of the U.N. was a turning point. The “Age of Secularity” that lasted almost 200 years from the Enlightenment to just after World War II was replaced by a world-wide global resurgence of religions that is of course continuing and accelerating today. (It’s interesting, if irrelevant, that the high-profile, highly publicized announcement of the conversion of Louis Budenz, a prominent Communist atheist, to Catholicism took place in October 1945, just three months after the U.N. founding convention.) The world public, which had been disillusioned by science and rationality’s apparent culmination in two devastating world wars that now threatened the very existence of the human race, turned away from science and rationality and embraced religion, which had apparently not contributed to those wars.*

    *In a completely different context, reviewing the work of Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz in 1898, Rosa said something sort of reminiscent of this: “Suffering under the increasingly brutal blows of reality, Romanticism, if it was not going to surrender entirely, had no recourse but to plunge deeper still into the realm of fantasy, to go still further in substituting imagination for reality.”

    The popular imagination no longer believes in "progress through science"; the limits that capitalism has imposed on science, harnessing it only for profit and destruction in the name of "mastering nature", has limited the results of science both for the public and for the scientist. So those results have hardly justified the earlier confidence in an endless vista of progress. Humanity’s loss of faith in progress explains today's loss of faith in science. And in his book “The Trouble With Physics”, Lee Smolin writes: “For more than two centuries, until the present period, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, what we know for certain about these laws is no more than what we knew back in the 1970s.”

    The incredible technological progress of the past has pretty much stopped. Most of the technological progress over the last century and a half occurred decades ago. Yeah, the time from first flight to moon landing was only 66 years, but it's been another 41 years since then, and what's happened since? Some people even today, like Ray Kurzweil, have claimed that the technological and scientific pace is exponentially accelerating so that humans are reaching a “Technological Singularity”. This is an interesting idea, but I think it sounds like 1950s or 1960s science fiction – that’s not to say that it’s silly, just that it’s false – and today it looks like the opposite is true: humans are reaching a “Technological Plateau”.

    In 1950, science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote a non-fiction essay called “Where To?”, reprinted in one of his last books “Expanded Universe” along with notes dated 1965 and 1980. The article pictures a graph showing the increase of human technology with a curve going upward slowly at first but at increasing slope until 1950. At 1950 Heinlein projects three possible trends for the future growth of this curve: that it will grow slowly, that it will keep increasing at the same rate (become a straight line), or that its slope (rate of increase) will itself keep increasing. Heinlein argued that that third projected curve was the most likely, that human technology would advance exponentially, and then gave a list of specific predictions that followed from this. His many 1965 and 1980 notes mostly gave explanations or excuses for why his specific predictions hadn’t come true, but none of them questioned or even mentioned his basic premise. I guess by 1980 it was not yet obvious enough to Heinlein that his first projected curve was in fact closer to the truth than his third one.

    If you’re familiar with the science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, think back to how overwhelmingly it portrayed us humans in the 21st century as having interplanetary (if not interstellar) space travel and colonies, flying cars, etc. The exceptions to this trend were usually deliberately pessimistic dystopias or warnings about bad futures. One of these, John Brunner’s 1968 classic Stand on Zanzibar, which predicted a human population of 7 billion in 2010, and which explicitly explained through one of its characters why technology had hardly improved since the 1960s, was actually not that much of a dystopia, especially by today’s standards: its 7 billion humans hardly seemed to suffer more than our nearly 7 billion, and even its technology included things like semi-sentient computers and three-dimensional televisions that seem like only distant dreams to us today.

    The fact that humans walked on the moon in 1969 but that only a drug-addled visionary today thinks they will do so again before 2030 or so* is only the most obvious way in which humans are reaching a Technological Plateau. Imagine a time traveler from 100 years ago suddenly finding himself or herself in the world of today. Our visitor from 1910 would be overwhelmed at the technological change that has occurred since then, but probably the most overwhelming bits – cars, refrigerators, ubitiquous electricity and telephones – changed closer to that time than to our time. Imagine a visitor from 50 years ago: he or she would probably still be awed by the changes since 1960, but on closer inspection would be disappointed at how most of the differences were just “cosmetic” – different-looking things that basically do the same thing as what existed before, like CD players instead of record players or color TVs instead of black-and-white. And even the non-cosmetic changes are still not all that recent: personal computers (my first was a Radio Shack TRS-80) and video recorders (called then “VTRs” instead of “VCRs”) in the 1970s, mobile/cell telephones and automatic teller machines in the 1980s, the Internet and world wide web in the 1990s. Not only do our cars not fly today, they are not even all that cosmetically different from 1960.

    *If a future Prexy reverses Oilbama’s scrapping of Bush II’s announced moon program in favor of an aspiration to visit Mars; his announced goals include landing U.S. astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and sending astronauts to orbit Mars and return safely to Earth by 2035. I predict that humans will NEVER make it to an asteroid or to Mars and will NEVER again make it to the moon. Again, “If it don’t happen soon, it ain’t never gonna happen.”

    Number of posts : 16
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    Re: “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”

    Post  RJHall on Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:13 pm

    NOTE: This image of course does not refer to Rosa Luxembourg, but illustrates what I called “The Crisis of Enlightenment” above.

    PART 4


    So, these five Cris-E’s are like five fingers of a hand: If you put them all together they make a fist, a combined weapon of great power, a fist which is far more dangerous than each finger separately. For example, a very good pair of novels by Alex Scarrow, Last Light and Afterlight, portray the wrecking of human civilization caused by a Peak Oil crash, the “middle finger” of my five E’s. The eyedropper-full of optimism allowed by those books comes from the fact that they hardly even mention any of the other four E’s. (Like, what happened to elites like The Twelve and the Prime Minister and so on that were prominent in the first book but barely even mentioned in the second book? Scarrow apparently assumes that the elites who have the power to launch nuclear missiles and so on would just quietly go away and leave everybody alone and not bother anybody, when in fact at least some of them, if not all of them, would lash out in a furious if futile attempt to preserve their power and privilege and be very destructive in the process.)*

    *For another example, in the introduction to his essay collection "Peak Everything", Richard Heinberg claims that these good things are NOT peaking: community, personal autonomy, satisfaction from honest work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, leisure time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, and beauty of the built environment. But every single one of those things has already peaked decades ago and is decreasing now--I would include them in the 5th E, Enlightenment Crisis. Heinberg seems to recognize that, but hopes that as fossil fuels etc. peak and civilization intelligently decreases, then those things will magically go up again, because after all they went down as energy use went up. But it seems clear to me that as energy use goes down, all those things will go down even faster than now, since for example the rich powerful robber class would increasingly limit the dwindling energy for their own use and cut off the robbed class, so inequality between those classes would increase even more. More wars will be fought to ensure that the diminishing resources go to the robber class: "The Last Greedy Grab." And what’s all this about civilization intelligently decreasing rather than violently crashing? As Dmitry Orlov says, “Isn't that a bit like asking a demolition crew to demolish a building brick by brick instead of what it normally does. Which is, mine it, blow it up, and bulldoze and haul away the debris?” So Heinberg's optimism is totally unconvincing. Nothing is more disheartening than almost any optimism period, because on reflection it is easy to shoot down. "Is that the best you can do? Gee, now I really AM depressed!"

    To continue the fingers & fist metaphor, what is the hand, what is the root cause of all 5 E’s? Many people would blame “Industrial Society” or “Science”. But blaming science for the problems of industrial civilization is basically claiming that each discovery that Aristotle was wrong was another nail in the coffin of the world. As Carl Sagan said, science isn’t perfect, it’s only a tool, but it’s the best one we have. Science doesn’t kill the planet; capitalism kills the planet.

    I think both sides in the argument over whether "Industrial Society" is good or bad are missing the real point, that it is not "Industrial Society" that is the culprit but capitalism! It's a red herring both to talk about whether technological advancement is good or bad and to accuse critics of the status quo of wanting to turn back the clock to when technological advancement was low. Instead, what most people do not understand is that the status quo (capitalism) was tremendously progressive for a couple hundred years but is now incapable of advancing technology much further and is indeed bringing down the temple on all our heads, because it is so inefficient and narrow (private-profit-driven). Technology can advance progressively and quickly again, without bringing down anything on our heads, only if it is made much more efficient and broad (public-humanity-driven). What is needed is not Luddites, or neo-Luddites, turning back the clock, but courageous humanity turning forward the clock.

    The very fact that people are mentally drawn to the red herring of industrialism, with some critics of the status quo proposing that industrialism and science should be abolished or at least turned back and with some defenders of the status quo accusing its critics of proposing that even if they are not, is indeed part of the problem: that the status quo society puts mental blinders on its subjects so that it is harder for them to even see the real problems and the solutions to them. Actually, these mental blinders are arguably my single biggest beef against capitalism, which holds humanity back, not just in what it DOES do, and not just in what it CAN do, but even in what it can IMAGINE doing.

    Industrial society is just an "obvious" red herring, since it is not science and technology and production and products themselves that are the real culprit, but the wasteful, inefficient, and destructive capitalistic system itself. If only its shackles were no longer holding us back, just imagine how much better off science and technology and production could make people, ALL people, and in the long term and not just the short term, than they have ever been before. An impossible dream?

    Science and technology are just tools that can be used for good or for ill. So the REAL source of the problems is not those tools, but the systematic misuse of them. Hence, don't blame them, blame capitalism! I know I sound raving mad there, but seriously, think about it, is the true source of evil the mere fact of scientific and technological discoveries, or the fact that an acquisitive materialistic consumptive society was the one that used those tools and produced the overconsumerism and overpopulation and so on?

    So it is capitalism, not science or industrial society, that is the “hand” with the five fingers, not just because it is the common cause of the 5 E’s, but also since the hand of capitalism is like a "stop" signal on a traffic light or a policeman or something, to stop any solutions to the 5 E's. Also, it is the "cold dead hand"* from which any solution that threatens to change the power and privileges of the elite must wrest the status quo.

    *"I'll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands!" is a slogan popularized by the right-wing National Rifle Association (NRA).

    Probably the biggest "con" against capitalism, regardless of whether you think it caused all or most of the world's problems (I do, but never mind), is that it is definitely incapable of solving them. It imposes a straightjacket, a rigid box, around our ability to solve the world's problems today. For example, ever notice how none of Al Gore's supposedly "radical" solutions to global warming involve REALLY radical things that would be impossible under capitalism? Capitalism means that every problem you can think of - climate change, overpopulation, ecological destruction and pollution, peak oil, nuclear proliferation, etc., etc. - has a sign on it reading "All Solutions Inconsistent With the Rich Getting Richer And The Poor Getting Poorer Need Not Apply." It's not that there IS no solution to those problems, it's that the solutions require thinking outside the box.

    Part of my pessimism comes from the fact that I think that humanity's woes (war, oil, environment, etc.) are all mere symptoms of capitalism and that only by curing the disease can the symptoms be eliminated and that nobody prominent, certainly not even Al Gore (who, like Joke-Barfa, has also won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize), is even considering that as a possibility, let alone advocating it. So my pessimism isn't just that those symptoms can't or won't be treated in time, it's that the disease ain't gonna get cured in time.


    Incidentally, I find all the religious predictions that the world will end on a certain date or certain year very unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to REAL concerns that bad things might REALLY happen in the future if current trends go on. Thanks to the former, people can ignore the latter and cite The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Now I personally think that Humanity - by which I mean modern human civilization, not necessarily the human species - will fall in the next few decades, and not just because of any one big thing like climate change or peak oil or overpopulation or nuclear war, each of which alone Humanity might be able to tackle, but because of ALL those things and other problems happening at the same time, which together would make Humanity weaker and liable to fall.

    Probably the worst thing about all the problems -- climate change, pollution, peak oil and coal, nuclear war, world economic crisis, etc. -- is that they are all happening at once. Maybe individually one at a time humanity could overcome each single one, but all together they are more powerful than any single one would be. It's kind of like being undernourished to the point of starvation AND catching a cold at the same time. If you were well-fed the cold might be easy to overcome, and if you were healthy the hunger might be easy to survive too, but having both together makes you weaker and less able to handle each one so now they're both serious. And then on top of that comes the third stress of learning your mother has died. And then the fourth stress of being fired from your job. And then the fifth stress of, etc....

    The people who point to religious scares of the end of the world that didn’t come true also point to nonreligious problems that have just “gone away”, like "peak coal" worries from the nineteenth century, the claim of Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s that we were all going to starve, the supposed “global cooling” scare in the 1980s, the supposed “fact” that we have been 25 years away of running out of oil for more than a century now, without any problem, etc.

    But rather than debunking “doomers” in principle, this is just a reminder that even though the disquieting facts are known, the exact consequences showing how bad their effects are are not yet known. To quote Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (an interjection by the 19th century millionaire sleeper into the 20th century socialist's explanations of how bad capitalism was): “’You have mentioned nothing but facts which stared me in the face all my life,’ I said, ‘and yet it appears I have had to wait for a man of another century to tell me what they meant.’"

    I am also reminded of another cartoon, the more recent This Modern World (the one with the talking penguin making political points with conservative humans):

    Biff: “It's true that I predicted an easy victory, a grateful Iraqi populace, and a rapid flowering of Jeffersonian democracy –“

    Sparky: “Who could ever forget the heady days of "democracy, whisky, sexy"?”

    Biff: “-- and to the extent that those things haven't entirely happened yet, you could say that I was at least partially wrong.”

    Sparky: “Very magnanimous of you.”

    Biff: “However -- that doesn't mean you were right! You may have predicted that the war would turn out badly -- but you did not predict the precise way in which it would turn out badly -- nor the exact sequence of events leading to that outcome! So as far as I'm concerned, the only lesson to be drawn here is that nobody can predict the future! That's it! No other lessons! End of story!”

    Sparky: “If anyone needs me, I'll be in the other room pounding my head against the wall.”

    The example of Paul Erlich is the clearest example of this. Erlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb was right to warn about global overpopulation (when most other people were denying or ignoring the problem), as the world overpopulation problem has indeed gotten much worse in the decades since then. However, he was wrong in "the precise way in which it would turn out badly", and all his critics today focus on the part of his book predicting mass famine in the 1970s and 1980s and conclude therefrom that there were no other lessons to be drawn from Erlich and the overpopulation problem. Not all the other problems critics mention have just "gone away" either -- for example, the problems with coal supply are still there and will possibly become significant worries again as the cheap oil runs out and humanity relies on coal more and more.

    Didn't Prexy Bush II, or one of that crowd, say about fighting terrorists that people who prevent terrorist attacks have to get it right every time while the terrorists only had to get it right once? Well, a similar thing could be said about debating doomsday: whenever a problem facing human civilization arises, advocates that we will muddle through have to get it right every time, while the gloom and doom crowd only have to get it right once. If 100 problems are identified, muddle-through guys have to be right all 100 times, with 100% accuracy, in order to correctly conclude that humanity will survive, while the doomsday crowd only needs 1% accuracy in order to correctly conclude that humanity will not survive. Now, who (other than Prexy Bush II) really believes they have 100% accuracy?

    Here’s what Asimov said at the end of that 1974 lecture to students:

    “And the interesting thing is that if we can get through the next thirty years, there's no reason why we can't enter into a kind of plateau which will see the human race last, perhaps, indefinitely...till it evolves into better things...and spread out into space indefinitely. We have the choice here between nothing...and the virtually infinite. And the nice thing about it is that you guys in the audience today, when I say guys I mean it in a general term embracing gals...when you guys in the audience today will still be barely middle-aged when you will know which choice has been made.

    “See, I've been so shrewd that I fixed it so that I was born in 1920. [group laughs] Which means I'll be safely dead. [group laughs] Before the crunch comes! [group laughs] But you guys will see for yourself. I hope you see a world in which mankind has decided to be sane. But I must say in all honesty that I figure that the chances are against it.”

    Asimov of course was a mere "liberal" and not a socialist, like Albert Einstein (in his essay Why Socialism?). Politically I would be more like the latter than the former. But it is interesting that his lecture, which made no mention of socialism or capitalism or even economics, concluded with essentially the same choice of alternatives that Rosa phrased as “Socialism or barbarism”. The “sane” world that Asimov describes (free of overpopulation, war, sexism, racism, agism, etc.) is incompatible with capitalism and only under socialism (with its freedom from class distinctions, crushing poverty, and rich oil executives getting richer by creating Gushers in the Gulf) would it be possible.

    Whether it is called sanity or socialism, humanity clearly has the potential to metaphorically become better than it is, though it is looking quite unlikely that that potential will become actual. I have thought for a while that humanity is Gaia's "attempt" (not literally, of course) to evolve a brain and mind. But just as only 1 out of 100 or 150 "attempts" of turtle eggs succeed in eventually producing adult turtles, so too maybe only about 1 out of 100 or 150 "attempts" of planets to eventually produce brains and minds succeed. Humanity may very well not succeed in becoming a planetary brain or mind but may stay in its narrow role as previously evolved and not grow (I mean in quality - humanity has no problem with growing in quantity!) beyond it and so may end the world (with a bang or with a whimper?).

    Selfishness and greed are not the ONLY components of human nature: there's also things like caring and compassion and intelligence and in wanting to feel good about yourself because you've done the right thing. Indeed, I'm not even sure that selfishness and greed are "fundamental components of human nature" at all rather than learned behaviors that humans pick up from their childhood experiences and upbringing and from their society (and its economic structures). If everyone were raised from childhood in a socialistic society in which sharing and cooperation and playing together were stressed and encouraged, would it still seem that selfishness and greed were "fundamental components of human nature"? I honestly don't know, and nobody can know this for sure - so why not try it and see? If we don't try it very soon, we may have no other hope for getting beyond 2040 or so at this rate!

    In the movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", near the end, after Spock has received a fatal dose of radiation but before his death scene (pictured above), Scotty says of him, "He's dead already." Obviously, Scotty doesn't mean that Spock is literally dead, since Spock is still alive and his final scene has yet to occur. Instead, he just means that Spock's death is imminent and inevitable. Speaking for myself, events of the past few years have not altered my assessment of things, and so I would say in the same sense: We're dead already. I’d say it’s not the 21st century that is the make-or-break one, it was the 20th.

    I don't necessarily have in mind some dramatic event like global thermonuclear holocaust or something. It could instead be a "last straw" type of event that is no different in kind from many similar events over the previous decades, and so is just another quantity added to them, but which leads to a dramatic change in quality, like the load of straw finally breaking the camel's back. Bit by bit, then all at once. So the consequences of the event are more significant than the event itself. Like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

    The only conceivable way humanity could survive the Five E’s would be by being liberated in a socialist revolution. But even IF the victory of humanity (the revolution) ever seems imminent, the world-destroying Dick-Cheney-types I mentioned above will have the last word. I suspect it won't even get that far -- assuming it isn't already too late. (And if it don't happen soon, it ain't never gonna happen.) My prediction therefore is this: in about 15 years now a substantial minority will be convinced that the two choices for humanity's future are whether it will go out with a bang or with a whimper, and in about 15 more years that choice will be made in fact. So, good news everybody, still about 30 more years before the bang-or-whimper question is answered! Plenty of time for the captain of the B Ark to have another bath (another Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference).

    My feeling is that the end of humanity (not necessarily the entire human species, but at least human civilization) would happen around 2040. Yet, even before that, I feel a shocking catastrophe that would not itself be the end but be a hard-to-miss sign that the inevitable is coming, would happen between 2020 and 2030. The analogy picture I have in mind is of a fly that is inside the house and flying toward a window that it thinks is open. The 2020 to 2030 event would be the loud "bang" the fly would make when it first hits the glass on the window. Then it would keep futilely buzzing and hitting the window again and again until the 2040 end, never realising that the window is closed and it can't get outside this way.

    And yet, though I'm pessimistic in practice, I'm optimistic in principle. Why? Because I think that there is ANOTHER window that IS open, and if the fly radically changed its course, it might even now still be able to avoid the closed window it is headed toward and go out the open window to the outside and freedom. It almost certainly won't, but remember the slogan: "Another window is possible!" Ironically, the closer we get to the closed window and the more obvious it becomes that it is closed, the harder it will be to reach the faraway open window.

    Humanity is on the part of the roller coaster when the car is slowly chugging up the steep slope. When you see that chugging upward, you KNOW that sooner or later it will be scarily racing downward. You may not know exactly when or where or how, but you will be certain as to whether. When humanity is racing downward, some people like me will blame capitalism, some people will blame socialism, some will blame rich politicians, some will blame poor immigrants, some will blame religion, some will blame atheism. There's only one thing everyone will agree on when the time comes: "YAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!"*

    *So, where are all the optimistic metaphors? I need your help in this because the ones I can invent are almost all gloomy. Like the poster saying that "If you can keep your head while those about you are losing theirs, you obviously don't know what's going on." Or like ostriches keeping their heads in the sand and so not seeing or underestimating the problems. But I know those are unfair. How about somebody climbing the ladder to the sunlight or something?

    Incidentally, though I stressed above that the end of human civilization would not necessarily be the end of the human species, the end of the former would be a big, possibly devastating, blow to the latter. Unfortunately, it's not quite like the northern hemisphere (or the "first world") would commit suicide and then the southern hemisphere (or the "third world") would live happily after after, because these days the global economy has so tied up all humans on the entire planet into technology that the pre-technological way of life humans have lived for hundreds of thousands of years has been destroyed and can't be gotten back to, at least not very easily. I submit that even most of the third world wouldn't be so well able to survive without the first world anymore, precisely because it has largely taken away the third world's way of living as they have for thousands of years!

    Most "third world" countries are no longer self-sufficient but have been plugged into the world economic system, and so no longer grow self-sufficient food crops but have monocultured into the most profitable export crop, which they sell to the "first world" in order to get money to import the food they eat. And even this monoculture can no longer grow in the depleted soil without massive imported synthetic fertilizers, so their very soil needs imports from the first world in order to grow anything at all.

    Granted, without our electronic devices, we in the first world would be even less able to survive than most people in the third world would be, but their survival is hardly assured (and this is not to mention that even many third-worlders have been so culturally assimilated into dependence on the first world and its electronic devices that their survival is as uncertain as ours). Is there a recent historical example of a third-world country that was largely dependent on such imports and then suddenly being cut off from them and having to learn to live alone? Surprisingly, there is such an example: Cuba. Cuba calls the 1990s the "Special Period" because the Soviet Union had fallen and was no longer exporting to them and they spent a very difficult decade learning to adjust and become self-sufficient, and learn for example creative ways of how to organically grow things and restore the metabolic cycles of their depleted soil that had depended heavily on imported fertilizers. If they hadn't had the infrastructure and ideology in place to help them do so, would they have survived?

    Also incidentally, even before the 2020 to 2030 event that would be a shocking catastrophe, I feel that there will still be extremely bad events that would be easier-to-miss signs of the inevitable, events that will be rationalized away (as will the 2020-2030 event, but the earlier events will be easier to take). The Gusher in the Gulf is such an event, but I suspect an even bigger event or sequence of events is coming this decade, 2010-2020.

    There was a quite interesting book recently called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman which describes various examples of what would happen to various features of our world over the years and millenia (like nuclear power reactors) if humans suddenly disappeared from it. The book explicitly states that its assumption is that humans' disappearance was relatively sudden and didn't affect the other life and structures on the world, so ruling out things like humanity destroying everything in nuclear war or taking half the worlds' species with it or something, and assuming that the disappearance happened right now with the world as it is currently wrecked as opposed to 30 years from now and how the world will be wrecked by then.

    “Nonfiction” books like The World Without Us (and fiction movies like “The Quiet Earth” and “The Stand” by Stephen King with the common science fiction theme of “the last people on Earth”) are very unrealistic because they depict most or all humans as having peacefully and quietly gone away and left behind an intact world. But, even if world socialism prevails, what kind of world would the “good guys” inherit? The “bad guys” would have fought to the bitter end and been so destructive that little if any of the natural world would remain. Starving masses will not sit quietly and peacefully starve to death, but will swarm looking for food and leave violent destruction in their wake. None of those peaceful intentional communities with local growers would survive the attacks of literally billions of starving people. How can so-called pessimists like James Lovelock be so sure that even some breeding pairs of humans would survive in the Arctic regions; what would they eat, since millions or billions of humans would have probably already swarmed up there and destroyed their farms and food supply? The world population of nearly 7 billion today would not quietly downsize; it will downsize all right but not quietly. Even if we prevail in the end, the end might be like the end of the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” or the Enterprise episode “Chosen Realm” – they return to their own world to find everything destroyed. The meek may inherit the Earth, but the Earth by that time will not be worth inheriting anyway.

    It’s beginning to look as if the line from the Internationale, "C'est l'éruption de la fin", is referring to the end of humanity rather than the end of capitalism. Also, new meaning is given to the lines in the Mad Magazine song, "And you silently say as the Earth fades away / That it's not such a super-spectacular day". But does this mean we should accede to these lines from CHESS: The Musical: "There is nothing more to do / No hope, no way / To save the game / The end of play / So I lose / Today / And tomorrow"?


    Once it is accepted that there really is NO chance of avoiding the worst scenario, and NO “dope” or “rope” and after one gets through any “mope” at the certain knowledge that of today’s nearly 7 billion people there will be many megadeaths, there are many different attitudes by which one can “cope”: the Sour Grapes “So what if human civilization self-destructs, it’s probably sour anyway!”, the Party Hearty (”So what, apres moi la deluge!”), the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (“Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow!”), the Schizoid Man ("Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will"), etc., but literature has sanctioned alternatives to those “oh well” responses, like the Don Quixote “Impossible Dream” one or the Atticus Finch* “Licked a hundred years before you start” ones. They fought on, knowing there was no hope, knowing they would not win.

    *Character in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

    So what about Don Quixote, who lacks all three “dope” and “mope” and even “rope” and fights the unbeatable foe? Well, no matter how admirable his determination and persistence and character and quest and dream are, the Don Quixote character in both Cervantes’s novel and the musical “Man of La Mancha” was literally insane (as was the character in the movie “They Might Be Giants”), and objectively in a sense, his futile activity was inefficient and a waste of time (exerting energy in a futile direction that could not possibly yield the result). If only Don Quixote’s labors and energy and spirit had been directed at something constructive and helpful that might have succeeded instead of wasted on a LITERALLY impossible dream! (If it were only FIGURATIVELY impossible, then it would not have been a waste, but rather a “rope” as defined above.)

    Maybe the same even could be said for Atticus Finch (of course I don’t REALLY mean that Atticus Finch was insane, but maybe just that he was a bad dad). After all, that is as good an answer as I can think of for why he knowingly subjected his two young children to physical harm and possibly death (and in fact Jem’s arm was badly broken; this is not a spoiler since the very first sentence of the book reveals it) just so that he could feel good about himself and hold his head up in town. The insane situation was that the system was determined to kill the defendant but staged a Hannity-and-Colmes style show-trial that looked fair and balanced before it did so, and Atticus Finch played the role of Colmes with style and panache, even though he knew (he warned his children) that his children would be physically threatened as a result. What sane parent would choose to make that trade-off?

    Is this what the “Cope” choice boils down to, when a sane mind is thrown into a desperate situation: either an “oh well” response or else insanity? Recently I am getting more and more feelings that I think might be the beginning glimmerings of what I call “The Far End” response, referring again to the Anne Elk Theory of the Brontosaurus I referred to earlier. Perhaps this too is another “oh well” response, but focusing on the large time and space scale of the universe (like in another Monty Python song, “The Galaxy Song”*) evokes for me those feelings.

    *Lyrics, which I’ve slightly altered to update science and avoid British slang:

    “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
    And things seem hard or tough
    And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft
    And you feel that you've had quite enough

    “Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
    And revolving at 900 miles an hour
    That's orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it's reckoned
    A sun that is the source of all our power
    The sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see
    Are moving at a million miles a day
    In an outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour
    Of the galaxy we call the Milky Way

    “Our galaxy itself contains 100 billion stars
    It's 100,000 light-years side-to-side
    It bulges in the middle, 16,000 light-years thick
    But out by us it's just 3000 light-years wide
    We're 30,000 light-years from galactic central point
    We go round every 200 million years
    And our galaxy is only one of millions and billions
    In this amazing and expanding universe

    “The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
    In all of the directions it can whiz
    And faster it will go, but not the speed of light you know
    Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is
    So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure
    How amazingly unlikely was your birth
    And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space
    Because there's none at all down here on Earth”

    Number of posts : 16
    Age : 52
    Location : Luxembourg
    Website :
    Registration date : 2010-02-10

    Re: “An Incomprehensible Degree of Optimism”

    Post  RJHall on Wed Aug 25, 2010 12:16 pm

    Modified reconstruction of Gibraltar Neanderthal child

    PART 5


    I was very moved as a teenager by the almost eerily prophetic “dream” sequence of the 13th and final episode of Carl Sagan’s classic (1980) TV documentary, "Cosmos". I've recently watched it again on DVD for the first time in many years.

    This 13th episode, "Who Speaks For Earth?", is about the precarious nature of human civilization. It has a "dream" sequence at the beginning showing Sagan in his spaceship looking for extraterrestrial civilizations. He finds one, and suddenly it self-destructs, the many mysterious lights on the planet suddenly going out. Saddened, he returns to Earth, listening to its television broadcasts as he approaches, but... "Suddenly, silence, total and absolute." (I'm mostly paraphrasing, of course!) "Had we destroyed our home? What had we done to the Earth? There were many ways for life to perish at our hands. We had poisoned the air and the water. We had ravaged the land. Perhaps we had changed the climate? Was it a plague? Or nuclear war?" It turns out it was that last one, but it hardly matters which. "There would be no more big questions, no more answers. Never again a love or a child. No descendants to remember us and be proud. No more songs from the Earth." (What pathos!) "Maybe the reptiles would one day evolve civilization again. There would be life, there would be intelligence, but there would be no more humans, not here, not on a billion worlds", with the Albinoni Adagio hauntingly playing in the background.

    That's all very moving and memorable, but that last part does beg the question, doesn't it: if there are a billion worlds with life and intelligence, does the fact that there are no humans among them matter to any one of them, or to anyone, apart from humans themselves? Think of planets where intelligent civilizations could potentially evolve as like sea turtle eggs. A sea turtle lays 100 to 150 of them at a time, and no more than 1% successfully yield adult sea turtles, there being a long list of predators and dangers to eggs and to baby sea turtles. Yes, it's a colossal waste, but that's how nature works. Similarly, if most of those planets don't yield surviving civilizations, it's a colossal waste, but.... Think of it as evolution in action: you can't have 1 planet yield an enduring civilization without having the other 99 planets not yield it, just like you can't have 1 turtle egg yield a healthy adult turtle without having the other 99 eggs not yield it.) The marvels of the universe include a number of messy details. A (wastefully?) huge number of haphazard failures or misses are required in order for the comparatively small number of marvels to be seen.

    Sagan spends much of the rest of the episode going over what a colossal shame it would be for the rest of the universe if human civilization self-destructed. Humans are the local embodiment of the eyes, ears, and brains of the Earth and the universe itself: "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." The last line of the episode says, "WE speak for Earth. We owe our continued survival not just to ourselves but to the cosmos from which we sprung." But I'm not so sure that's convincing anymore. If the cosmos has evolved a billion sets of eyes, ears, and brains, then does it really matter to the cosmos that one of those sets, the one marked "Humanity", didn't last long?

    Of course, whether it matters to the cosmos itself or not, or the Earth itself or not, it certainly does matter to humans! It does matter to my 9-year-old daughter who will have to grow up in this 21st century. Nevertheless, now whenever I think of that scene I imagine the life and intelligence on a billion worlds including Earth shooting firecrackers, playing the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah, popping champagne bottle corks, etc. at the news that there were no more humans!


    But those are all words. Talk minus action equals zero! Getting back to an Earthly scale, what actions should activists take now? After all, it’s still too soon to be absolutely CERTAIN that “Resistance is futile!”

    There is a famous Albert Einstein quotation: "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." To paraphrase it, I would say: Marxism without anarchism is lame, anarchism without Marxism is blind. As in the Einstein quotation, Marxism provides the clear vision and theory and analysis and anarchism provides the ethics and morals and living practice; a revolutionary can’t have one without the other. Anarchism inspires what you’re aiming for, and Marxism describes how to get there. My favorite Marxist is Rosa Luxemburg, and my favorite anarchist is Henry David Thoreau.* And yes, I know Rosa wrote many times against anarchism and anarchists; for example, in Mass Strike: "Anarchism has become in the Russian Revolution [of 1905], not the theory of the struggling proletariat, but the ideological signboard of the counterrevolutionary lumpenproletariat, who, like a school of sharks, swarm in the wake of the battleship of the revolution. And therewith the historical career of anarchism is well-nigh ended."** I definitely like Marxism more than anarchism (just as I definitely like science more than religion). Nevertheless, each has something the other lacks.

    *Thoreau was not a doctrinaire anarchist, but then he was not a doctrinaire anything.

    **Ironically, in Mass Strike Rosa arguably called for the importation of an anarchist idea, the general strike, into Marxism, stating that now anarchism was in practice opposed to the idea so Marxism should no longer be: "The revolutionary struggle in Russia, in which mass strikes are the most important weapon, is, by the working people, and above all by the proletariat, conducted for those political rights and conditions whose necessity and importance in the struggle for the emancipation of the working-class Marx and Engels first pointed out, and in opposition to anarchism fought for with all their might in the International. Thus has historical dialectics, the rock on which the whole teaching of Marxian socialism rests, brought it about that today anarchism, with which the idea of the mass strike is indissolubly associated, has itself come to be opposed to the mass strike which was combated as the opposite of the political activity of the proletariat, appears today as the most powerful weapon of the struggle for political rights." To object to Rosa’s implications (and those of Engels that she quotes) that the views of some anarchists were held by all anarchists is to make another “I went to school one last week”-type objection.

    Of course, I especially like Marxism more than capitalism! Probably all Marxists have crossed swords with capitalists many times and have a huge repertoire of points to defend socialism and communism against standard contentions from defenders of the status quo. But I can’t resist giving one of my favorites. The contentions that socialism can never work, it's impossible science fiction, it would require genetic engineering or something else to change inflexible human nature, and it cannot exist outside a totalitarian system like former East Germany, the former Soviet Union, and modern capitalist "SINO"* (Socialist In Name Only) China under Deng "What's brown and sounds like a bell?" Xiaopeng and his successors, sound like the bishop in this poem by Bertolt Brecht about a man in the Middle Ages who put on wings, climbed to the roof of a church, and tried to fly. He crashed of course. The bishop came out of the church, tsked at the scene, and confidently harumphed that "mankind will never fly":

    *You know, as in Sino-Western relations.

    “Ulm 1592.

    “Said the Tailor to the Bishop:
    Believe me, I can fly.
    Watch me while I try.
    And he stood with things
    That looked like wings
    On the great church roof-

    “That is quite absurd
    A wicked, foolish lie,
    For man will never fly,
    A man is not a bird,
    Said the Bishop to the Tailor.

    “Said the People to the Bishop:
    The Tailor is quite dead,
    He was a stupid head.
    His wings are rumpled
    And he lies all crumpled
    On the hard church square.

    “The bells ring out in praise
    That man is not a bird
    It was a wicked, foolish lie,
    Mankind will never fly,
    Said the Bishop to the People.”

    Like science, Marxism (or "scientific socialism", as Engels called it) is more a method for asking questions about the present and finding answers to it, and so knowing what needed to be changed, than a prescription for or description of what an ideal society in the future should look like (or "utopian socialism", as Engels called that in contrast).

    Richard Dawkins frequently explains how DNA isn't a blueprint that describes and details what an organism is like but more a recipe book or computer program that describes what needs to be done to build that organism. That distinction sort of applies to Marxism, which isn't a blueprint for describing what a socialist society would be like but instead an investigation into and explanation of what the real world is like and why and so what must be done and changed. (For example, Karl Marx's magnum opus, the 3-volume Capital, doesn't talk about socialism at all but instead describes in detail how capitalism works and what it does.) The thing that at core really sets scientific socialism apart from other modes of thought is that it asks questions that implicitly challenge the status quo and are therefore dangerous. A famous quotation from some priest whose name eludes me at the moment (I just looked it up: Dom Helder Camara) goes: "When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist." So there's a basic but dangerous question: Why are some people rich and some people poor? A defender of the status quo (either explicit or implicit) would shrug his shoulders and say something like, "It's inevitable, human nature, it's always been that way, nothing can be done about it." But a challenger of the status quo would point out that at least part of that sentence is demonstrably false (it HASN'T always been that way, since for 99% of human existence, for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, there were no class societies, and there isn't just one human nature, since different societies encourage different aspects of it) and the rest of it, if it even MIGHT be false, is certainly worth being investigated further since the stakes are so high. The main conclusion that scientific socialism leads to is that real change involves more than just the reformism of adding epicycles upon epicycles to the system's existing orbits around the Earth, but requires the revolutionary (this sense of the word "revolution" comes from the Copernican system replacing the Ptolemaic one), radical change at the root of the system (the word "radical" comes from the Latin for "root") by having the orbits around the Sun instead.

    Another analogy: the differences between capitalism and socialism are in some ways like the differences between "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am" sex and making love with the one you love. If you've only known the first one, then you might think that the second one is just an impossible dream that is against human nature and can never work, especially if you know of some other people who aspired to the second one but then were thwarted. Though, isn't tsking and saying "Mankind will never fly" when a few people strap wings to their backs and jump off a tall building (as in Bertolt Brecht's poem) a less scientific response than to keep trying to build better wings to see whether it REALLY IS TRUE that mankind will never fly?

    Yet another analogy: the differences between capitalism and socialism are in some ways like the differences between adolescence and adulthood. (Not only do I know that that's an oversimplification, but I will introduce a FIFTH analogy to show that I know it's not quite that simple, to evolution by natural selection. Dawkins also repeatedly points out that it is wrong or at best an oversimplification to see fish, amphibians, and reptiles are mere stepping stones on the path to humans, since they were (and are) organisms that evolved by natural selection in their own right and are just as well-adapted to their conditions as humans are to ours.) The question "Adolescence: Pro or Con?" would have the dialectical answer "Both." Pro: It's a necessary step forward from childhood to adulthood. Con: It ain't adulthood, and it just might get you killed before you make it that far.

    But vague descriptions of being a little of each of Marxism and anarchism are hardly concrete enough: what SPECIFICALLY should be done, what SPECIFIC actions are needed? Whatever is done on any of the 5 finger E's, or any subissue thereof, must also attack the hand, capitalism; for any serious solution even partially addressing the problems has to be wrested out of the "cold dead hand" of the elite. I am hardly a tactician, but I would guess that serious mass strikes with substantial demands ("Jobs for All, Legalization for All, a Massive Public Works Program" sounds good) are needed as a start. The important thing is that whatever is done pose a real, serious, significant threat to the powers and privileges of the capitalist elite, or else nothing substantial and lasting can be achieved (and if the organization itself is substantial and lasting, then that right there might be a real threat to the elite).


    Though I still have the gloomy feeling that the most pressing demand is one that could never be won, as a concession or any other way: "What we need most is a time machine!" By now, the year 2010 with a population of almost 7 billion people and the 5 E's advanced so extremely, I fear it is too late to avoid billions of deaths no matter what happens; now the overshoot is so far that it will all end in tears. This was certainly not the case in Rosa's lifetime, when the world population was only 1.7 billion, much less in Marx's lifetime, when it was only 1.1 billion. So, contrary to Hugo Chavez's statement that both had the luxury of thinking there were centuries to achieve international socialism, it appears they both correctly perceived that socialism had to be achieved immediately, before it was too late.

    Science fiction author Larry Niven once wrote in an essay that the appeal of stories with time machines changing the past comes from the childhood wish (and childlike grammar): “Make it didn’t happen.”* I would note that instead of focusing on preventing an individual event (as do most science fiction stories in this genre, which are usually about preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy or something), it would be better and more fruitful and more creative to focus instead on causing a fundamental change (“Make it have happened”): what if the Russian revolution in 1905 had succeeded? What if the German revolution in 1919 had succeeded? What if John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 had succeeded?** And so on.

    *For nonnative English speakers, the correct grammar would be “Make it not have happened.”

    **There actually is a fine book called “Fire On The Mountain” by Terry Bisson with this “alternate history” scenario. Not only was slavery in the United States ended, but a socialist revolution occurred in the Southern part that eventually spread to the Northern part and apparently much of the rest of the world (there is a reference in passing to the later Paris Commune having succeeded or at least lasted for years). Plus people go to Mars in 1959.

    I'm uncomfortably aware that this is reactionary to the core, but sometimes I wonder whether civilization itself might have been a mistake and that humans should have stayed hunter-gatherer foragers.* Even though I just compared capitalism to adolescence and said it was a necessary step forward from childhood to adulthood. Even though Rosa has specifically disagreed, for example:

    *This reminds me of that line from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which, in the TV version, author Douglas Adams had a cameo as the naked man walking into the sea: “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.“

    “Tolstoy’s weak point – his conceiving the whole of class society as a ‘mistake’ instead of as an historic necessity joining the two endpoints of his historical perspective, primitive communism and the socialist future – is obvious.”
    - “Tolstoy as a social thinker” (1908)

    Still, would Rosa have said that if she hadn't been such an optimist who actually believed that class society actually would in fact soon lead to the socialist future? What if she had known that, 102 years later, not only had class society still not led to the socialist future but that there were increasingly serious signs that in fact it never would? And even if the socialist future is coming, is it really worth the long wait, not just the 102 years since then, but the 10,000 years since primitive communism? What right have we, or Rosa, or Marx, to tell the happy humans of 10,000 years ago, or the sufferers of 8,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, and 1,000 years ago, or the nonhumans of those times, that it is?

    Civilization is like a long crowded line to a tourist attraction, with the tourists waiting an agonizing 10,000 years with stifled, cramped, limited freedom, seeing but ignoring or not believing a sign by the line saying the remaining wait is still long ("2 hours left"), hoping the attraction at the end will be worth it all, increasingly reluctant to leave the line and regain freedom after investing so much waiting time, and increasingly unable to enjoy whatever might be at the end. As the song "In The Year 2525" sang: "Now it's been ten thousand years / Man has cried a billion tears / For what, he never knew / Now man's reign is through."

    As Don Marquis wrote in 1935 (supposedly written by his character Archy the cockroach in a non-capital-letters poem that in turn attributes it to "what the ants are saying"): "what man calls civilization / always results in deserts". Here is the whole poem, which is short and good:

    "what the ants are saying

    "dear boss i was talking with an ant
    the other day
    and he handed me a lot of
    gossip which ants the world around
    are chewing over among themselves

    "i pass it on to you
    in the hope that you may relay it to other
    human beings and hurt their feelings with it
    no insect likes human beings
    and if you think you can see why
    the only reason i tolerate you is because
    you seem less human to me than most of them
    here is what the ants are saying

    "it wont be long now it wont be long
    man is making deserts of the earth
    it wont be long now
    before man will have used it up
    so that nothing but ants
    and centipedes and scorpions
    can find a living on it
    man has oppressed us for a million years
    but he goes on steadily
    cutting the ground from under
    his own feet making deserts deserts deserts

    "we ants remember
    and have it all recorded
    in our tribal lore
    when gobi was a paradise
    swarming with men and rich
    in human prosperity
    it is a desert now and the home
    of scorpions ants and centipedes

    "what man calls civilization
    always results in deserts
    man is never on the square
    he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth
    each generation wastes a little more
    of the future with greed and lust for riches

    "north africa was once a garden spot
    and then came carthage and rome
    and despoiled the storehouse
    and now you have sahara
    sahara ants and centipedes

    "toltecs and aztecs had a mighty
    civilization on this continent
    but they robbed the soil and wasted nature
    and now you have deserts scorpions ants and centipedes
    and the deserts of the near east
    followed egypt and babylon and assyria
    and persia and rome and the turk
    the ant is the inheritor of tamerlane
    and the scorpion succeeds the caesars

    "america was once a paradise
    of timberland and stream
    but it is dying because of the greed
    and money lust of a thousand little kings
    who slashed the timber all to hell
    and would not be controlled
    and changed the climate
    and stole the rainfall from posterity
    and it wont be long now
    it wont be long
    till everything is desert
    from the alleghenies to the rockies
    the deserts are coming
    the deserts are spreading
    the springs and streams are drying up
    one day the mississippi itself
    will be a bed of sand
    ants and scorpions and centipedes
    shall inherit the earth

    "men talk of money and industry
    of hard times and recoveries
    of finance and economics
    but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
    for while men talk they are making deserts all the time
    getting the world ready for the conquering ant
    drought and erosion and desert
    because men cannot learn

    "rainfall passing off in flood and freshet
    and carrying good soil with it
    because there are no longer forests
    to withhold the water in the
    billion meticulations of the roots

    "it wont be long now it wont be long
    till earth is barren as the moon
    and sapless as a mumbled bone

    "dear boss i relay this information
    without any fear that humanity
    will take warning and reform

    The development of civilization by some people has certainly led to bitter consequences, not only for other, more sensible people in the world, but also for most citizens in the same part of the world. Civilization is like some feminists say about men or most people say about lawyers – the only thing you need civilizations/men/lawyers for is to protect you from other civilizations/men/lawyers.

    Could we pretend (like I pretended earlier that Rosa's quotation about "the one who thinks differently" was about neurodiversity) that Rosa's most famous quotation, “Socialism or barbarism”, means that the only good alternatives are "advanced communism" or else primitive communism? After all, Friedrich Engels, following Lewis H. Morgan and the rest of the 19th century Victorians, referred to the stage of human history before civilization as "barbarism".

    Unfortunately, though, even before Rosa coined the phrase in What Does The Spartacus League Want? (1918),* she explained what was meant by a similar but longer quotation by Engels. From Junius Pamphlet, 1915:

    *”In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery menetekel above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society:
    “Socialism or barbarism!”

    “Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.”

    Returning to the 5 fingers and hand metaphor, where the 5 E’s are the fingers and capitalism is the hand, we could say that civilization (class society) is the arm, at the end of which is its latest phase, capitalism, but which has always caused to some extent the problems we observe today in capitalism. Or rather that civilization is the skeletal bones of the arm, and overpopulation is the arm muscles driving it forward. Because it is the increasing overpopulation of humans that has always, ever since the beginning of civilization, prevented humans from going back to before civilization. What in the Victorian era was seen (and so included in Marxism) as Progress with a capital P, driving humans forward and precluding going backward, now looks simply like Population with a capital P (and simple reluctance to leave the crowded line we’ve been waiting in).

    Of course when I talk about overpopulation I don’t mean the common simpleminded Malthusian theme that the only reason people are hungry is that there are too many mouths to feed. There is a "hunger crisis" in the world at the moment with hundreds of millions of people being "chronically hungry" and over a billion "frequently hungry". The usual "obvious" red herrings to explain this, going back to Parson Malthus, are not enough food and too many people. But world food production per capita is at record highs, so obviously, the reasons for the "hunger crisis" must be different from the "obvious" ones that Malthus stated. The reasons are deeper, systemic, at the root of the status quo: capitalism is so hugely wasteful, inefficient, and destructive that it is just plain incapable of feeding all the people, despite the fact that as a simple matter of food production, it SHOULD be better capable of that now than at any previous time in history. If only the shackles of capitalism were no longer holding humanity back, just imagine how much better fed people would be than they have ever been before!

    What I mean is that population increase has always held humans from going back and that, even if we go forward to “advanced communism” that could indeed efficiently feed everyone, overpopulation means it still would not be sustainable for years and decades indefinitely. There is no sustainable way to feed 7 billion humans forever; even if “advanced communism” did indeed do it, by intensive use of non-renewable resources, such use obviously could not be sustained.

    Population means that we could not, and even at the beginning never could,* go back to primitive communism even if we wanted to, since it would mean wiping out some or most of humanity. The population of southern France under foraging 30,000 years ago was about 400. The population of the whole world in 10,000 B.C. was about 1 million. Cutting down today’s population level to such sizes would mean many gigadeaths. Even in the time of Marx and Engels, when world population was only 1.1 billion, it would have meant many megadeaths. But, as they pointed out, capitalism had created so much wealth that, for the first time in human history, it was possible to conceive, not of a primitive communism, but of an “advanced communism”. If socialism really had prevailed in Marx’s or Rosa’s time, the population was still low enough, but now, I fear, 7 billion is just too high.

    *Under hunting and gathering, the need to carry children, both on the daily round of gathering and on the periodic moves of the whole camp, led to a tight restriction on the birth rate. Women could not afford to have more than one child who required carrying at a time, and so births were spaced every three or four years. With fixed village life based on agriculture, by contrast, not only did the child not have to be carried after it was a few months old, but the greater the number of children, the greater the area of land that could be cleared and cultivated. So population went way up after the transition from hunting and gathering, and the transition was irreversible.

    Of course population prohibits not only going back to primitive communism but even going back to before World War II, as Asimov stated in 1974:

    “There are always people who think that all we have to do, after all is abandon all this foolish technology that we've made ourselves slave to, and go back like our ancestors and live close to the soil with the good things of nature. That would be great if we could do it. If we could go back to the way it was before World War II, technologically, we could support all the people that lived on Earth before World War II. The catch is that in these last thirty years one billion and a half people have been added to the population of the Earth. And we have been feeding them largely because of all these things that we have done in these last thirty years, the good weather, the fertilizers, and the pesticides, and the irrigation, and the green revolution, and all the rest of it. If we abandon that, we also have to abandon a billion and a half people; and there are going to be very few volunteers for the job.”

    In 1974, world population was about 4 billion. So today, 2010, we would need 3 billion more volunteers for the job. (Unless we had a time machine!) Of course, “volunteers” is a joke: in general population crashes happen in nature when the population overshoots the carrying capacity without regard to whether the individual organisms “volunteer” for downsizing or not. (Kind of like employees of a company.) So without the time machine, this would be the bad sense of “barbarism” that Rosa described and not the good sense that appeals to wishful thinking.

    So, though it may not be quite as emotionally satisfying, we are left only with the wish that “Socialism” rather than “Barbarism” will prevail and that “Socialism” will have been worth the sad veil of tears of the past 10,000 years after all. To questions like “Is it ok for humans to exploit humans economically?” we are left with the dialectical answer in the Marxian tradition “Yes and No”! Yes, it is OK and even good, in a sense, that we (our ancestors) exploited humans and nature economically, since without human exploitation (its first manifestations are division of labor, specialization, and private property), we (humanity) could never had gotten as far as we have and we’d still be in small bands of hunter-gatherers, as humans were for almost their entire existence. So Yes, it is indeed OK in a sense that we have passed through the stages in which exploitation was a helpful if not needed tool. Nevertheless, No, it is not OK and definitely not good that we STILL exploit humans and nature past the point when we arguably needed to, since now it is getting more and more clear that exploitation (its current manifestations include the threats of climate change, peak oil, nuclear war, etc.) is no longer useful but is leading humanity to imminent disaster unless we get rid of it pronto. “Socialism or Barbarism”! This isn’t a perfect analogy, but think of the vermiform appendix: is it OK that humans have an appendix? Yes and No. Yes, it is good that our ancestors had an appendix, since it too served an important function in its time and we could never have come so far without it. But No, it is not good that we STILL have an appendix today, which is not only no longer needed but also positively dangerous, since once it gets inflamed it has to be removed immediately or else we will die. As Rosa Luxemburg might have phrased the alternative outcomes of appendicitis: “Appendectomy or Rigor Mortis”!

    Contrary to the received wisdom of the conventional bourgeois historians, which are fostered by the ubiquitous myth that mankind is selfish and mercenary by "human nature", the evidence (not radical Marxist rhetoric, but mainstream anthropology) suggests that for tens of thousands of years the economy of homo sapiens sapiens was so-called "primitive communism" in which marketless "sharing" was the rule and, in a world where scarcity compelled foragers to move constantly in search of food, property in land and personal property were alien concepts. It seems to have been only around 10,000 years ago or less that things like private property, systematic war, and the coercive state emerged anywhere. Sure, when those things arose, great achievements like civilization and its products (science, literature, art, more population, etc.) were developed too, but now that we have them we don't need the things that led to them anymore. It's kind of like the cosmic inflation, the exponential expansion of the universe in its first fractions of a second, that was needed to get the universe going and led to the large, homogeneous universe we have today: it's a good thing it stopped when it was no longer needed, or we wouldn't still have the modern universe for long! Maybe we'd have popped like a burst balloon: just like what capitalism threatens to do to human civilization if it keeps going too long! It's also kind of like the vermiform appendix: it was good that our primate ancestors had it in order to digest leaves, but now that it's vestigial and can burst with fatal results we don't need it anymore!

    Unlike overpopulation, it is capitalism that is a definite obstacle to solving other problems - until capitalistic power and richness and privilege is pried out of the "cold dead hands" of the people who have it, they will NEVER allow any solutions to any other problems that would diminish their power.


    Population’s Perniciousness in Pressuring Progress (I like alliteration!) is just a special case of this general rule: Quantity Quashes Quality.

    The quality of museum trips, for example, goes down when a quantity of hundreds of humans is added. If the museum is crowded and you are rushed and pushed, you might see only a tiny fraction of the exhibits and information presented. In fact, almost every scene has its quality subtracted if a quantity of humans is added. “Quality of life” measurements of cities and countries (like Luxembourg ranked 3rd in this category in a recent Newsweek study) favor those with small quantity of population. Almost no matter what kind of problem concerns you, every problem gets worse if the human population goes up. Even problems like "There are not enough people" patronizing this store or this chess club: increased population might lead to increased competition that might lead to the unsuccessful store going out of business and the chess club being canceled, or else it might lead to "be careful what you wish for"-type consequences, where the store and club become so big and crowded that they’re not pleasant anymore. The quality of humans themselves goes down as the quantity goes up. Where are all the Einsteins today, since the population now is so much greater than in his
    time? The development of a full human being, whether an Einstein or anyone else, depends on the right kind of environment, the right kind of atmosphere, the right kind of experiences, in order to actualize all the human's potentials. Young Einstein spent much time alone enjoying the glorious country environments of Italy. If not for those experiences, he would never have grown up into the Einstein we know. As the quantity of humans increases and the quality of the natural environment decreases, then humans can no longer get the experiences they need to actualize their potentials and grow up into Einsteins.

    I remember there used to be an argument that any overpopulation problem could be solved by having more humans (i.e. ignoring the problem and breeding without restraint) so that, as the number of humans went up, so would the likelihood that somebody would be smart enough to solve any overpopulation problem. But what I have just said about the quality of fully developed humans going down as the quantity of human population goes up (and the quality of the environment goes down) certainly seems to refute that. Though the fact that, in the decades since I heard that argument in the 1980s, nobody yet has solved the overpopulation problem even though there are way more humans now than there were then is the perfect refutation of that argument.*

    *Another argument against dealing with any overpopulation problem I remember from the 1980s is that only intelligent affluent people with good self control would actually limit their reproduction and so the world would be given to the “marching morons” who would continue to overbreed and outnumber the intelligent ones. Not only is this argument obviously racist but it has the same flaw as the response in the U.S. in the 1970s to the discrepancy of draft age being lower than voting age (decreasing the latter to be equal to the former instead of increasing (or abolishing) the former): instead of worrying about nonintelligent nonaffluent people breeding, why not educate them and make them affluent? Besides, even a “marching morons” scenario would be better than the alternative, runaway overpopulation.

    Cultures of quantity supplant cultures of quality. Those cultures of people that had small quantity of numbers but high quality of people (Neanderthals, Etruscans, Minoans (or “Ariadneans”), etc.) have always been supplanted by cultures that had high quantity of numbers but arguably lower quality of people. Mere quality can only damage and occupy quantity but cannot supplant it. For example, Europeans could kill all or almost all native Americans, aboriginal Australians, etc., when the latter had low quantity of population, but when there was a high quantity of natives, then Europeans could not kill them all but only inflict high quality of destruction and occupy the high-population natives for relatively short times (years or decades), e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, India, etc. In the long term, quantity eventually survives colonization, occupation, etc. by relative quality.* Truly, there is indeed safety in numbers.

    *Even Rudyard Kipling in "Arithmetic on the Frontier" pointed out the effectiveness of low-cost quantity against high-cost quality in Afghanistan. And no, I'm not making any value judgments about British or European or American soldiers being of higher "quality" than native Afghans or Iraqis. Not at all!!! I'm focusing more on the high quantity and low cost of the latter and the relatively high cost and low quantity of the former when invading.

    The principle "quantity quashes quality" goes beyond human beings, of course. For example, a high-quantity chain store runs a high-quality local shop out of business. The elaborate scheme of Daniel Dennett in his book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" for awarding a prize to one of a high quantity of entries without checking the quality of each entry was supposed to illustrate some philosophical point or other, but what it REALLY illustrated was quantity quashing quality, the high number of entries making it impossible to check the quality of each one. Five hundred TV channels, nothing good on. When there is increased room for diversity, there is decreased tolerance for it. When one is swamped with a high quantity of things or people, one needs to assign each one numbers, rather than using the individual names of each one, to keep track of them all. And so on.


    I spoke above about Homo sapiens neanderthalensis having been a "culture of quality" that was supplanted by the "culture of quantity" Homo sapiens sapiens. In their honor, I would like to call overpopulation "Neanderthals' Revenge." It was recently revealed that there was some interbreeding between modern humans and the Neanderthals, with Neanderthals contributing 1-4% to the genomes of non- Africans. Nevertheless, the higher-population modern humans supplanted the lower-population Neanderthals. Of course, I don't believe for a second that violence or genocide was involved. Such a popular bourgeois supposition goes against all anthropological evidence in transforming how modern "civilized" humans behave under capitalism into inflexible "human nature" that describes
    how our ancestors behaved before capitalism and before civilization. Plus, it simply does not require violence for one animal population to replace another within a few thousand years. Besides, just how stupid do modern popular bourgeois types think Neanderthals were that they would fail to recognize a new superpredator and learn to avoid him before it was too late?

    The popular bourgeois supposition is reflected in the novel The Inheritors, by William Golding, which nevertheless is highly recommended not because it is accurate – Homo sapiens sapiens probably did not really butcher Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Neanderthals weren’t really that way (even in 1955, nobody thought the Neanderthals telepathically shared pictures)* (though the coincidental detail of the Neanderthals having red hair was nice!) – and not only because it is a very well-written novel by a Nobel Laureate (the Literature prize, not the Peace prize won by such renowned peacemakers as Obama, Gore, Arafat, and Kissinger), but also because it is a fine allegory for modern humanity confronted with oncoming Armageddon: not noticing the signs and never understanding what is going on or what to do about it.

    *Interestingly, in the really laughable and ridiculous book The Psychic Detectives by Colin Wilson, someone does indeed claim that Neanderthals were psychic and that some modern humans have inherited those psychic abilities and can sometimes receive psychic flashes when they relax and let go and attain broad and intuitive “Neanderthal consciousness”. Barfius yucchium! (Pseudo-Latin invented words.) I suspect the person in Wilson’s book was influenced by Golding’s earlier novel.

    Unlike sapiens (and most other life), who usually favor quantity over quality in offspring and so mate to produce offspring every chance they get, maybe neanderthals were smart enough to limit the offspring they produced, going for quality rather than quantity, and so held back from reproducing (though not necessarily from nonreproductive sex) at least as often as modern human hunter-gatherer foragers do so as not to overburden the scant resources of the area, if not more due to their conserving* nature. It is known that Neanderthals did limit their population size – from the genetic diversity research finding last year that total Neanderthal population from 70,000 years ago to 38,000 years ago was held to an average of 1,500 females (so 3,000 total). Holding down their population over tens of thousands of years (in a way that modern sapiens did not when they later arrived in Europe) took brains.

    *By “conserving” I simply mean reluctant to change, which evidence shows was a Neanderthal trait, and not the political word “conservative”, which apparently means embracing change so much as to actually cheer on the runaway train as it accelerates toward the edge of the cliff. My favorite question about the definition of "conservative" comes from Carl Sagan's last book "Billions and Billions", a section of which he entitled "What Are Conservatives Conserving?" As in this quotation: "It's hard to understand how 'conservatives' could oppose safeguarding the environment that all of us -- including conservatives and their children -- depend on for our very lives. What exactly is it conservatives are conserving?"

    The more I learn about Neanderthals, the more they seem like Vulcans rather than Klingons as is the popular perception of them. For instance, they had a brain size of around 1500 cubic centimeters, bigger than that of many modern humans (average size around 1400 cubic centimeters). It seems that whenever I read that fact, there is always an addition like “But brain size by itself doesn’t mean more intelligent, just look at the whales for instance.” In addition to reminding me of another quotation from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,* the obvious defensiveness of this statement has the opposite effect on me from the one the writers probably intended.

    *“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much -- the wheel, New York, wars and so on -- whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons.”

    Even Rosa herself alluded to the popular perception of Neanderthals as violent and warlike cavemen in her “Life of Korolenko”, her introduction to her translation from the Russian into German of an autobiographical novel that she made while in Breslau Prison for being against World War I: “With the outbreak of the world war, traditions of the Neanderthal man unexpectedly became very popular. In the land of thinkers and poets, the “great time” was accompanied by a sudden return to the instincts of the contemporaries of the mammoth, the cave bear, and the wooly rhinoceros.”

    Of course Rosa did not literally mean that pre-civilization people were as warlike as under modern capitalism. She herself had written extensively on primitive communism, for example in Introduction to Political Economy. Nevertheless, her apparent faith that the past was at least as bad as the present and that the future will be, MUST be, incomparably better, “represented an incomprehensible degree of optimism.”

    If I had a time machine (zero equals zero!)*, I would want to lend a warm living hand to the Neanderthals.

    *That is, any scenario with probability zero is as good as any other scenario with probability zero. It means that what has just been said is impossible. It’s like saying “When donkeys fly” or something.


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