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A Being That Goes on Two Legs and Is Ungrateful

A Being That Goes on Two Legs and Is Ungrateful
Golgotha (Edvard Munch, 1900)

We now turn to the question of whether growth itself is wrong and humans are bad. The economic stagnation that has gripped the developed world for the last 50 years has many dimensions to it, but its most salient aspect is ubiquitous cynicism. From the very beginning of this series, we have dwelled on the Enlightenment, starting with Isaac Newton, appropriately, in the first piece outlining the problem of stagnation. For manmade economic causes of stagnation, we turned primarily to statistics and modern economic arguments. The next set of causes, natural explanations, required following the Scientific Revolution from Newton through Thomas Malthus and Auguste Comte. The latter provided a bridge to culture, the last set of causes we addressed, which opened us up to political thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Above all these political thinkers we turned to the prominent thinker on culture, an author found in Newton's library, William Shakespeare. To address psychological and spiritual explanations we will have to further plumb literature from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Friedrich Nietzsche. My focus here is not on arguing that humans are inclined towards malevolence (one should read Dostoevsky directly for that), but that this belief contributes to stagnation.

To Go Wrong in One’s Own Way Is Better Than to Go Right in Someone Else’s

Before we get there, let's return to the social institutions we discussed at the end of last week's piece – family, education, media and religion. The state and the market, as I have previously argued, are not diametrically opposed features of modern society, but conjoined twins. Even the most strident libertarians admit that there is no market without the state, and while left- and right-wing authoritarianism both have many ideological hold-outs, the empirical cases of China, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, South Korea, etc. demonstrate that states need markets just as badly. Therefore, it is only the anarchists who can claim ideological purity, but they do so at the expense of progress, a point we will return to in our examination of the early anarchist movement, so eerily predicted by Dostoevsky.

The profound psychological and spiritual illness wrought by the coordinated intrusion of state and market into the most intimate of our social relations is depleting society of common devotion. Feelings of mutuality, unmediated by coercive powers of the state or market, are what some call community. We have already discussed some communitarians, including Proudhon, Jane Jacobs, David Graeber and Michael Sandel. Christopher Lasch rejects communitarian ideology based on compassion in favor of one based on respect.

Whether or not you agree with his critique, it is clear that both compassion and respect exist outside of the coercive powers of the state or the market. Why and how did coercion overtake selfless offers of compassion and respect? To answer this question, we can examine the four social institutions mentioned above by how they shape relationships – to the self, to those above and below us in the social order and to our peers.

What the Four Social Institutions Have To Do With Self, Hierarchy and Peers

Take family for example. Family is the institution most identified with birth/death, parenting, romance and kinship. It helps us deal with the end and beginning of life, the most personal challenge anyone faces. It provides structure for how to treat those above you (parents) and those below you (children). It is a template for how to treat your peers, whether pursuing a romantic relationship as your parents did or a platonic relationship as with siblings.

Similarly, education instructs our relationship to self by imbuing us with skills and abilities that construct our self-worth. Education allows us to develop critical thinking skills and hold inner thoughts that criticize the status quo social hierarchy. It also provides us with specialized knowledge so that we may be useful to our peers and teaches us how to socialize and work in groups.

Media is almost as old an institution as family and education, although we often think of it as blaring cable TV stations and pinging smartphone notifications. Cave paintings, songs and poems have been transmitting ideas and shaping relationships for millennia. It is from these media that we develop our internal values. We learn how to articulate our critical thinking and present the case upholding or overturning the social hierarchy. Again, we learn to relate to peers and the greater society with shared beliefs that come from media and a sense of sympathy for the other who we learn about through media.

The last and most mysterious social institution is religion. Before the invention of writing, the wheel, or even agriculture and the domestication of animals, humans constructed massive monoliths at Göbekli Tepe (a neolithic site named for its location in modern day Turkey). Sophisticated religious rites were the impetus for the first societies, not the technological advancement of agriculture. Religion provided us with an interior sense of morality and an exterior set of ethics by which we navigated differences in power. It also required and fed faith, the key ingredient for trust. Peer relationships in particular are guided by empathy, another creation of religion.

In the 11,000 years since offerings were burnt amid the ornately carved monoliths at Göbekli Tepe, the market gained control of media and the government institutionalized education. The story of what happened as humans went from worshiping animal spirits to many gods to one god to no gods is too long for this piece, but we will return to at least the death of god in the next section. To understand how social institutions have eroded, one must examine how market and the state have deconstructed the family and the house of worship. Because education and media are the social institutions that transfer ideas between individuals, their corruption is also the answer to why and how coercion was able to overturn spontaneous generosity.

Starting From Unlimited Freedom, I Conclude With Unlimited Despotism

Whether growth itself is wrong and humans are bad, is a question at least as old as Adam and Eve and yet as modern as Greta Thunberg. While the question of original sin has been hotly debated for thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the modern era is defined by the Nietzchian world view. This view was first put forth by Ivan Turgenev, the famed Russian Golden Age author, in which he coined the term "nihilism." Turgenev, only slightly older than Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, would outlive Nietzsche, who was still a high school student, when Fathers and Sons was published in 1862. This was only a year after John Stuart Mill published his essays on utilitarianism, and Turgenev, a cautious reformer, sought to westernize Russia gradually. His main insight was to highlight the generational conflict between the conservative orthodoxy of Russian fathers and the extreme material rationalism of Russian sons.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would build on Turgenev's insight and answer with their own philosophies, Christian anarchism and Christian orthodoxy, respectively. It is Dostoevsky, whatever you may think of his solution, who best understands the nihilist mind. In novels like Notes From the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866) and Demons (1871), he captures the worldview of socialist anarchists turned nihilists like Mikhail Bakunin with passages like these:

Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy. Now all is pain and fear. Now man loves life because he loves pain and fear. That's how they've made it. Life now is given in exchange for pain and fear, and that is the whole deceit. Man now is not yet the right man. There will be a new man, happy and proud. He for whom it will make no difference whether he lives or does not live, he will be the new man. He who overcomes pain and fear will himself be God. And this God will not be.”

Dostoevsky's novels predicted the revolutions to come, although he would only live until 1881, 24 years before the 1905 Revolution and well before the October Revolution of 1917. Tolstoy would outlast both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, living until 1910, and like Nietzsche, he was taken with German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer's main work concerns relativism, will and desire, themes adjacent to the idea that growth is wrong and humanity is bad. His extreme pessimism prompted Tolstoy to reject politics, class and materialism in favor of Christian asceticism. While Tolstoy may have believed that the benefits of growth did not justify the social costs, he was an avowedly utopian humanist. As a humanist, he believe in the innate good of humanity, becoming an increasingly more radical pacifist, Georgist and anarchist until his death. But his hope for humanity did not account for by what means war making could be ended, serfs could be brought out of poverty and property (both state and private) could be abolished.

Nietzsche on the other hand extended Schopenhauer's pessimism to its logical conclusion, famously declaring that, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" In Nietzsche's view, the ancients (Greeks, Hindus and Zoroastrians) already discovered all the wisdom of the universe and anything else was a perverse deviation from the eternal recurrence. In this system, growth is not only wrong, but impossible, and humans are not even evil, but possess an amoral will to power. Nietzsche went mad shortly after publishing Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, a tribute to his own genius.

It is worth noting that Rachel Carson, mentioned in an earlier piece on limits to growth, was born three years before Tolstoy's death. The post-war environmental movement, which Carson is often said to have birthed, replays many of the same tropes as Schopenhauer, Tolstoy and Nietzsche. The integration of Buddhism with the West like Schopenhauer, the vegetarian utopianism of Tolstoy and Nietzsche's antinatalism.

On the face of it, the movement to slow growth appears to be humanist. Earlier in this series, I pointed towards Jane Jacobs. Known as a humanist and advocate of individualism, her writing took a dark turn in her later years, with her last book The Dark Age Ahead a deeply pessimistic castigation of modern family, education, science, government and culture. Always a radical, Jacobs began as a radical optimist, but became increasingly pessimistic and radical pessimism becomes indistinguishable from nihilism. This is also apparent in the works of leading anti-growth advocate Jason Hickel's work Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World which has been called "the degrowth bible." Hickel, an anthropologist by training, who was worked in international development, ends a piece on the errors of colonialism with this quote by Martiniquan communist Aimé Césaire,

"What am I driving at? That a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler—its punishment.”

It is true that in the pursuit of selfish progress, developed countries have deeply wronged other peoples, the environment and members of their own society. That a civilization is morally diseased and irresistibly calls for its punishment is a view of humanity as irredeemable evil. In that framing, people are bad and multiplying is worse.

This piece was not meant to persuade you that people are bad or that growth is wrong – or even the opposite view. I am simply pointing out that these views are in vogue among the degrowth movement that appears to be, and may even think of itself as, saving humanity. After all, Nietzsche too believed he was the savior of the world.

Without compelling leaders at the helm of society today, it is tempting to give into this pessimism, which may be the very cause of stagnation. But leadership is the topic of next week's piece.