Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Antichrist to Our Community and Values

I may have written about this basic issue before -- in fact I know I have, only maybe not here on the blog -- but I guess it's okay to repeat myself now and again.

I'm still reading Robert M. Sapolsky's The Trouble with Testosterone, presently the chapter "Beelzebub's SAT Scores." After some meditations on the Unabomber, Sapolsky declares:

But there is an even more disturbing component, the one that seems hardest for people to admit to but which I am detecting again and again in offhanded, self-conscious quips: rather than mere recognition, there is a frightening hint of identification, of there but for the grace of God go I. ... We all do indeed have our dark sides. One evening, that great horned toad of an awkward intellectual, Karl Marx, came home from fulminating in the British Museum. "At any rate," he wrote to Engels that night, "I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles all the rest of their lives." As well they did. Few of us can ever hope for that level of retributive pissiness. We merely fantasize about returning someday to our childhood neighborhoods, encountering the ex-bullies or the catty girls who were in the in-group when we were not, and beating them into contused, bloodied contrition with our thick stack of diplomas. ... And then Kaczynski goes and does something with some queasy, identificative elements of exactly that. And worst of all, our pulses quicken over so slightly, as if, sickeningly, we are almost proud ... Ted Kaczynski, the Id from Mensa [107-8].
I can't make much sense of this, even in context. Something has disturbed Sapolsky so much it has rendered him quite incoherent.

Speaking of context, I decided to take a look at the rest of Marx's letter of 22 June 1867 to Engels. Marx had been going over the proofs of the first volume of Capital, and was annoyed by the number of misprints he'd found and had to correct. Then:

At all events, I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day. Here is a fresh sample of what swine they are! You know that the Children’s Employment Commission has been at work for 5 years now. When its first report appeared in 1863, the industries it exposed were at once ‘called to order’. At the beginning of this session the Tory ministry introduced a bill per Walpole, the Weeping Willow, accepting all the Commission’s proposals, though on a very reduced scale. The fellows who were to be called to order, among them the big metal manufacturers, and especially the vampires of ‘domestic industry’, maintained a cowardly silence. Now they are presenting a petition to Parliament and demanding — a New Enquiry! The old one, they say, was biased! They are counting on the Reform Bill taking up the public’s entire attention, so that the thing would be cosily and privately smuggled through, at the very time that the trade unions are having a rough passage. The worst things about the reports are the fellows’ own statements. They are well aware that a new enquiry means one thing only, and that is precisely ‘what we bourgeois want’ — a new 5-year lease for exploitation. Fortunately, my position in the ‘International’ enables me to frustrate those curs’ little game. It is a matter of the utmost importance. What is at stake is the abolition of torture for 1 1/2 million people, not including the adult male working men!
But hey, child labor doesn't matter, nor the determination of "the big metal manufacturers, and especially the vampires of 'domestic industry'" to continue using up children in their factories. What matters is that Marx was "awkward", because it means he didn't really have any objection to child labor or other types of exploitation -- he just wanted to get even with the bad guys in his head.

Contrary to Sapolsky, the bourgeoisie has not remembered Marx's carbuncles. The factories are now built not in Manchester but in the Philippines, Malaysia, and other "Third World" countries, and the conditions haven't changed much. The sweatshops are still filling young women's lungs with cotton dust. Young children's lives are still being stolen from them. Workers are still dying when their factories catch fire and they discover that they've been locked in, so that they won't sneak an extra unauthorized break. Only an "awkward" neurotic would consider such things violence, or call the entrepreneurs who inflict them "swine."

I'm not saying, please understand, that Sapolsky favors child labor or other forms of social oppression. As an enlightened modern person, of course he doesn't. But in his essay he is only concerned with the neuroses of people like Ted Kaczynski, or the neurosis involved in "our fascination with him" (109). (The phrase "What do you mean 'we,' white man?" kept popping into my mind as I read Sapolsky's tortured prose.) How their childhoods might have affected the motivations of the capitalists who used up the lives of millions of children, women, and grown men in order to make profits; who stripped away the regulations that might have kept them from undermining the world economy, with tremendous human cost; who imposed austerity measures on countries in the name of fiscal responsibility, also at tremendous human cost; and those who directed (and served in) the armies that invaded smaller, weaker countries, dropping explosives, napalm, and shrapnel weapons on civilians and shooting, bayoneting, torturing other human beings by the millions; who set police dogs and thugs with clubs and tear gas on nonviolent protestors; in short, the planners, initiators, and directors of official state violence all around the world -- none of this bothers Sapolsky as far as I can tell, or as far as he tells in this essay.

The scale of official state violence around the world is vastly greater by several orders of magnitude than the scale of retail unofficial violence by individuals like the Unabomber. If I condemn Ted Kaczynski for what he did, as I do, then how much more I must condemn the respectable people, the rulers, the managers, for what they do. Robert Sapolsky and so many other commentators dwell on Kaczynski as a wild-eyed crazy, but they don't question the sanity of those who commit far more horrific violence with state power.

True, toward the end of the essay Sapolsky gestures at

the detachment of a button being pressed in a high-altitude bomber and, as a result, a Vietnamese village being obliterated. Our era is dominated by violence that involves pushing a button or giving an order or looking the other way, rather than by hands with barely opposable thumbs gripping cudgels. ... But if technology has lengthened the reach of violence, it has also lengthened the range of acts we can be sickened by and must act against [109].
Except that Sapolsky doesn't seem all that sickened by the violent acts of the state. He's much more upset by freelancers like Kaczynski, who is the focus of his essay. (And incidentally, he's full of shit with that stuff about what dominates "our era." Violence guided from afar has been a feature of human life for centuries. And was there a time when nihilist bombers and lone assassins weren't condemned by right-thinking people?) The moral issue is that some violence leads to massive government manhunts to ensure that the perpetrator doesn't escape justice; other violence leads to indifferent dismissals of the need for any action at all, with exhortations to look to the future, not the past; and still other violence leads to a Nobel Peace Prize. No one psychoanalyzes the political or business leaders of the West, or speculates about how their brain chemistry might have led them to commit their crimes. As for putting them in jail, well! The very idea is outrageous. Laws, policemen, courts, prison -- to say nothing of armchair psychoanalysis -- are not for them.

I wonder if it's this contradiction -- one law for the mighty, another for you and me -- that puts the incoherence into "Beelzebub's SAT Scores." There's also the problem of scientists cooperating with state violence, whether they be anthropologists helping the American military defuse embarrassing situations in Afghanistan or weapons engineers designing the next-generation predator drone. But we wouldn't want to speculate about their brain chemistry either. The magnitude of official violence is too great for "us" to think about very long; it's less disturbing to dwell on the occasional small-scale vigilante.