The Other Spectres Haunting

The world wobbles like a spinning top. Tension accumulates.

Nuclear weapons. The depression epidemic. Famine with twice the food we need- starved by plenty. Our every email recorded. One percent of America in prison. Global temperature spiking. Bangladesh perhaps soon to go under water.

The present world will not hold much longer. Either it will become better, or it will become worse. It has stood still in a moving river too long. Perhaps the interlocking matrix of human action is simply too large for something as feeble as an idea to steer it towards what is better. Or perhaps history dances on a knife, able to fall to either side, each slight intervention being possibly decisive. Either way, it will fall, and it is the duty of everyone who has realised this to act upon it as best as they can. Nowhere in this story is the concept of inevitability invoked, the inevitability of socialism has always been a poorly supported premise, and in turn provides little support to what it was intended to prove- that anyone should work towards socialism.

There is not one spectre haunting us, but countless billions.

Ten thousand years ago or there abouts, agriculture was invented. Almost immediately, life expectancy plummeted. Eventually the scale of wars vastly increased, and childhood diseases multiplied. For one hundred centuries, vast multitudes of people lived under conditions usually of unimaginable poverty and always under authorities’ alien to themselves. Suppose that an interloper from the Neolithic (the new stone age) confronted us and challenged us to produce evidence that the invention of agriculture had been worth it.

I would be dumbstruck. Abolishing agriculture is not an option, it would simply be reinvented. The historical record suggests that it arose at several different locations; it was no fluke, but an inevitable outcome of our humanity.  There is no going backwards. The quickening of human life is irreversible. But this isn’t an argument for agriculture being worth it, merely an argument that it is now unavoidable. On balance there is little evidence that, at least so far, it has done more good than harm. Where is the proof that it was worth it. In other words- what comfort is there for the dead?

We stand at a moment where whatever fragile, often localised, improvements have been made are themselves threatened. Seen distantly, it looks like this: three hundred generations or more, woven in a spiral of increasing human power, never held by the common people of the world, and paradoxically combined with increasing suffering. The spiral loops faster and faster. If all this collapses, each moment of suffering entangled in the spiral will have been for nothing.

Before agriculture, the division of people into different hereditary economic layers was typically non-existent or limited (there are exceptions, mostly in societies which managed substantial surpluses in the absence of agriculture). The reasons for this are fairly clear, without large surpluses, there were great limitations to how much inequality was even possible, lest everyone but a few starve. Since agriculture, society has been split by an abundance of different class structures.

But class society is also political. There is no demand more reasonable than to control our own lives. But since the invention of agriculture, we have been told nothing but that this is impossible. This is simply a collorary of the irregular accumulation of the surplus; really it is not that the rich have held too much political power, being rich may as well be a form of political power.

We can see contemporary class society as continuous with all class society, or we can see it as a radical break. The overlapping categories of hereditary kingdoms, various slave owning societies, feudalism and the like bear much in common with contemporary capitalism, and also bear many distinctions. This is not the critical point though. The really critical point is that right now we pretty indisputably have the resources necessary to overcome class society.

It is my belief that every single problem mentioned in the first paragraph finds its root in class society. If we can overcome class society, if we can distribute what society makes evenly, if we can eliminate hunger, if we can stop the reckless destruction of our world, if we can create genuine autonomy, maybe then we’ll be able to say to the many tragic ghosts that it was worth it.

Let us turn Hegel on his head one more time. History is not an unfolding process of rationality, rather we have the power to steer it so, or at least we must act in the hope we do. For the living, for the dead, for the yet to be born, we must use this brief span, perhaps just a few decades, to remake the world. There is very little time; we must not let this spiral fuelled by pain end in just more pain.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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