Orthodox, High-Church Marxism suffer from two fatal flaws. The second — by far the most culturally relevant, though uninteresting for our purposes — is that it’s an all-purpose excuse for life’s rejects. No, comrade, it’s not that you were dealt a poor hand and chose to play it obnoxiously; it’s the system bringing you down. The first is the same dreary affliction that sinks all attempts at a Unified Field Theory of Life, no matter how fearsomely footnoted: It’s a Gem. The assertion that a society’s intellectual-socio-cultural “superstructure” can only rest on a given economic “base” is, when you boil off all the verbiage, merely the assertion that men can only be how they can be. It’s a tautology.
Low-Church Marxism, though, can be quite useful. Marxists who were historians first and Marxists second — such a combination was possible before the Boomers took over — did valuable work. Cf. Christopher Hill’s (born 1912) work on the English Civil Wars, or Eugene Genovese’s (1930) studies of American slavery. Though they were as dogmatic as they come in their personal politics for much of their lives (Hill kept his Stalinist faith almost to the end), the Marxism in their work was de-scriptive, not pre-scriptive — it dictated the kinds of evidence they’d look for, not the conclusions they’d reach. They were interested in the lives of ordinary people, not The People.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, so long as you don’t let Revolutionary fervor get the better of you, a quasi-Marxist viewpoint can be quite valuable. That’s the second key to Marxism’s enduring appeal (the first, again, being the get-out-of-jail-free card it hands to fugs, freaks, and deviants): Marx’s de-scriptions, as opposed to his pre-scriptions, were dead on. It seems almost painfully obvious now, in the Current Year, that there’s a dialectical relationship between a society’s mores and its economic system, but it only seems so thanks to a century and a half of Marxism. Nobody reads a book like The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism anymore, because there’s no need to — it’s in the air, something “everybody knows.” But at the time it was revolutionary, small-r.
Back in my teaching days, then, I used to liken Karl Marx to one of those medieval plague doctors that ran around in bird masks. His diagnosis would be spot on — you’ve got the plague, and he can see it better and faster than the best modern MD. But his proposed cure would be batshit insanity — a poultice of sheep rectum or something. So it was with Marx. Alienation is the Modern disease, it’s terminal for us Postmoderns, and no one has ever seen it better than Uncle Charlie. But like that sheep-rectum poultice, the Labor Theory of Value and its associated horrors will kill you much faster than the disease it’s meant to cure.
But let’s update the metaphor. Those among the Twenty Readers (do we still have that many?) who came over here from House of Eratosthenes probably remember this fun little exchange, with the infamous Cuttlefish Collective. If you don’t feel like wading through all that — and indeed, for the sake of your sanity, I strongly counsel against it — it’s some goofy group of trolls calling themselves “Zachriel” trying to argue about the “validity” of the argumentum ad verecundiam, the specious appeal to authority. At some point, the expertise of medical doctors was mooted as proof of… well, of something, their “thought” process was as opaque as their prose, but it doesn’t matter, the point is, I made the simple, obvious observation that it doesn’t matter how learned the MD is if he’s looking at the wrong chart. You can call in the world’s greatest specialists, the tippy-top of top men, and their diagnosis of your problem will be unanimous. The problem is, these eminent men will all be flat wrong — you’ve got bronchitis, not bowel cancer — because they’re looking at the wrong chart. You’re Jane Doe, not Tim Smith.
So, too, I’m coming to believe, with Low-Church Marxism. We seem to have learned all that history “from below” (the kind Hill and Genovese did) has to teach us… and that’s because, like the all-star team of super-docs looking at the wrong chart, we’re studying the wrong thing. The “base” upon which the cultural / political / economic “superstructure” rests isn’t economic, it’s genetic.
Before we go further, I want to emphasize again, as strongly as I can, that I’m not arguing for “genetic determinism,” the chromosomal version of what I called High-Church Marxism. Biology is even messier than economics, so we have to strive even harder to avoid the Gem fallacy. I’m not arguing that a given phenotype must produce a certain form of society. Rather, I’m suggesting that genetics sets some hard limits on the possibilities. You can get an infinite variety of calico kittens by breeding two cats, but you’ll never even get a purple one, let alone a dog.
An example: We’ve discussed all the cool steampunk shit the Greeks could’ve had, if only Archimedes had… well, that’s just the thing, isn’t it? We look at the aeolipile and see a prototype steam engine; they looked at it and saw, as best we can tell, a party trick. Back when, I suggested, Marxist-style, that labor costs were a sufficient explanation for why nobody took the obvious-to-us next step of hooking the thing up to something productive and kicking off the Industrial Revolution. Machines are labor-saving devices; the ancient world had a gross excess of labor. Calling the aeolipile a steam engine, then, is a category error.
New hypothesis: It’s a category error, all right, but not because they didn’t think in terms of labor costs. It’s because they couldn’t think in terms of labor costs.
A world organized around institutional mass slavery is, in a very real sense, a timeless world. Herodotus (I think) actually says somewhere that nothing worth mentioning happened before him, and you can see echoes of this attitude even as late as the Antebellum South. You see their attitude described as “conservative,” but since that’s egghead shorthand for “evil” you can ignore it. They weren’t consciously backward-looking; rather, they were deeply rooted to their place and station. To the outsider, it looked like they were trying to hold time back, but to the insider, time — clock time, industrial time, the time of the Protestant work ethic — barely existed at all.
So with the Classical World. The Romans, for instance, are endlessly frustrating to their admirers (of which I am an ardent one). Their only economic fix, for instance, was debasing the currency, i.e. a primitive form of inflation. You guys could figure out how to hew an artificial harbor out of some desert rocks — a trick we’d have a hard time pulling off today — but you couldn’t figure out fiat currency? Or a better political system than the tetrarchy? Or that the forts-and-legions paradigm just isn’t cutting it? Or… etc.
Stuff like that is why Spengler said classical, Apollonian culture was fundamentally different from, and incompatible with, our Faustian culture. According to Spengler, the master metaphor for the Apollonian is the human body, which is beautiful but changeless (emphasis mine, not Spengler’s). You can improve your body somewhat, but only within certain tight limits, and the body’s fundamental form is always the same (we could time warp Julius Caesar into the Current Year and still recognize him as a fellow homo sap., no matter how different his mind might be).
The Faustian, though — that would be us — organizes his worldview around space, infinite space. Practically speaking, this results in our attitude of innovation-for-innovation’s sake. We send a man to the moon because we can, but such an idea would never occur to the Romans, for the same reason they didn’t apply all their awesome engineering knowledge to the problems of governance. Hacking a harbor out of the desert is a tremendous feat, but it’s a local feat — a one-shot deal, a very specific response to a very specific local problem, with no broader applications.
This, I suggest, is because the timeless world of institutional mass slavery naturally selects for the kind of man who is at home in the world of institutional mass slavery. It’s a world of very low future time orientation, because “time” hardly exists at all. Forget machinery for a sec; the Roman world was full of enormous problems that had teeny-tiny, head-slappingly obvious fixes. Julius Caesar, for instance, was considered some kind of prodigy because he could sight-read books. Which really was a noteworthy feat, because Romans didn’t even put spaces between their words, much less use any sort of punctuation marks. And they were radical innovators compared to the Ancient Egyptians, since at least Roman writing all ran left-to-right; hieroglyphics can be read in any direction, including vertically, and I’m pretty sure there are examples of them changing text orientations in the middle of the same inscription. It’s not hard to imagine some legion commander actually losing a battle because he had to stop and sound out an important communique from a subordinate…
…and yet the Romans, for all their technical skill, never even figured that tiny change out. See also: The Chinese doing fuck-all with movable type, vs. (Faustian) Europeans using it to conquer the world. China, too, was a timeless society. As Derb says somewhere, Classical Chinese isn’t even really writing; it’s more of an aide-memoire — designed to remind readers of stuff they already know, not to communicate new information.
Your post-Roman European, by contrast, lived in a world where high future time orientation was an absolute must. You don’t need hypotheses like the famous “lead in the drinking water pipes” to explain the seemingly bizarre things the Romans did, or didn’t do; all you need is time orientation, a fundamental attitude of “this is a variation on an old problem” vs. “this is an entirely new situation that requires a new response.” Life in the post-Roman world was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short — every man for himself; think through the consequences of your actions very carefully before you do them, or die horribly. Those who failed to do so died. Bake that into the genetic cake for a few generations, and you get Renaissance Man, who’d see a million possible applications for the aeolipile.
Which brings us to the present day [the Rotten Chestnuts motto: Come for the parenthetical asides, stay for the non sequiturs]. I like to joke that we’re re-medievalizing, since the Left carries on like the Spanish Inquisition while the peasantry sinks ever faster into the mire of goofy superstitions. But the truth is, we’re re-Apollonianizing, if you’ll allow me to butcher Spengler for a sec. Our mental horizon is now the body — our very own unique, special snowflake bodies, of whichever sex and however many genders and sexual orientations. I used to think that crimestop, as practiced by dimbulb Leftists like the Zachriel (remember them? from up top?), was a conscious choice:
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.
But now I think it really is instinctive. I eventually concluded that those particular clowns were suffering from something like Asperger’s Syndrome — how else to explain the fact that they were able to carry on like that for years, over thousands of comments? But I was wrong. It’s not a “syndrome,” since that entails deviation from a norm. Rather, that IS the norm, the new norm in our newly re-Apollonian age. r/K selection theory is real, it applies to humans, and it explains modern political behavior like nothing else can. We’ve bred the New Soviet Persyn, all right — this is what happens when you ruthlessly purge future time orientation from the gene pool.
Insofar as they can be said to “think” at all, those idiots out there burning down cities for Burn Loot Murder really do think everything will be just hunky-dory, that the burned areas will somehow magically regenerate overnight, once they get whatever it is they think they want. It’s the same zero future time orientation that drives Leftist “social policy” — they can tax everything, at 100%, forever, and the taxpayers will just keep on paying, because why wouldn’t they? Everything is as it always was, and ever shall it be, because there’s no future, no past, only now. They’ve bred themselves into Elagabalian idiocy.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m sure that it will be as the eugenicists described… one way or the other.