Sunday, November 29, 2020

The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that's happening is happening because it had to happen

 These Medieval ladies look like fashion models. With their splendid dresses in silk brocade, they are displaying their wealth in an age, the 14th century, in which Europe was enjoying a period of economic growth and prosperity. They couldn't have imagined that, one century later, Europe would plunge into the terrible age of witch hunts that would put women back to their place of child-making tools. It is the way history works, it never plans, it always reacts, sometimes ruthlessly. And all that happens had a reason to happen (above, miniature by Giovanni da Como, ca.1380)


Can you tell me of at least one case in history where a society perceived a serious, existential threat looming in the future and took action on it on the basis of data and rational arguments? Yes, sometimes they can fight relatively minor problems and, in the case of our modern society, we do have some examples of success, say, the attempt to control the ozone hole problem. But how about truly major threats, those that can wipe out an entire civilization? With the best of goodwill, I can't think of a society (including ours) that perceived the problem in advance and acted on it decisively and effectively. Normally, problems are denied or misunderstood. At best, societies react to existential threats using a primeval stimulus-reaction that may be aggressive or defensive, but almost never rational.

Curiously, our society, that we call sometimes "The West," was the first in history to have a chance to do something rational to avoid the destiny awaiting it much before the threat was clearly visible. It was in 1972 when the newly developed digital computers were coupled with a powerful analytical tool, "system dynamics." The result was the study called "The Limits to Growth" that foresaw how the gradual depletion of natural resources coupled with increasing pollution (that today we call "climate change") would cause the whole Western economic system to collapse at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The study also suggested rational solutions to avoid collapse: reduce consumption, stop population growth, manage pollution, and the like.

As we all know, the attempt was a remarkable failure: society reacted as if the threat were the people who were trying to sound the alarm. The "Limits to Growth" study was ridiculed, demonized, and ignored. Now, it is much too late to apply the remedies that had been proposed almost 50 years ago. 

It could have been expected. Society lacks the tool that allows people (sometimes) to act rationally: a central processing unit like the one that's part of our brains. My friend Nate Hagens uses the term "superorganism" to describe how society works. I use the term "holobiont" for the same concept. I think it is more correct: an organism needs a central nervous system, but a holobiont may be perfectly functional without one. The kind of holobiont we call "human society" at best has just embryonic structures acting as control systems. Sometimes, control takes the form of a "great leader" who usually does more harm than good. 

So, in most cases, the societal holobiont reacts to perturbations by a mechanism of local interactions among its components. It may well be an effective method: by a series of trials and errors, the holobiont is normally able to absorb an external perturbation and re-establish a certain balance. But it can't plan for the long term, nor for perturbations so strong to require a rearrangement of the whole structure of the system.  

What we are seeing in the West nowadays is the reaction of the societal holobiont to a threat that, in itself, was not large. The COVID-19 pandemic could have been ignored, instead it triggered and amplified a series of effects that were the result of much stronger perturbations. Resource depletion and climate change are making what we call the "consumer society" (aka "consumerism") obsolete. Simply stated, there is little left to consume, and consuming it is bringing not just a climate disaster, but a possible collapse of the whole ecosystem. That just can't go on.

Dimly, the great human holobiont is perceiving these threats and it is reacting as it can: using the tools at hand. Of course, it is very difficult to convince/force the majority of the people to stop consuming resources. It can't be obtained by rationally explaining to them the concept of resource depletion (it has been tried, it just didn't work). But it can be done by using propaganda to scare people and that seems to be working (*).

So, what's happening is perfectly rational, at least in a certain way. The consumer society is being disassembled and destroyed: people are forced to consume less, to travel less, to use less resources. International mass tourism has disappeared forever, commerce has taken a tremendous hit, and other institutions that we took for granted seem to be standing in line waiting for their turn to jump off the Seneca Cliff: schools, universities, public health services, and more. 

Of course, not everybody will consume less. The resources not used by the poor anymore are being funneled into the military system which, in turn, is expected to make sure that the elites can keep consuming as much as before, and possibly much more. That's still possible because the members of the elite are few and their impact on the resource base is much lower. 

There is nothing strange, here: a "consumer society," wasteful as it is, is rare in history and it doesn't usually last for long. In most societies of the past, commoners had no such thing as a "right to consume." Their role was of producers or of soldiers and there was no surplus available to them: just the bare essentials they needed in order to survive. And we may well be reverting to that situation. 

It all happened so fast that we have all the reasons to be surprised, even stunned and bewildered. But nothing really new is happening, it is just an adaptation to a new situation. It takes a form that hides the perception of what the real problem is: we think it is an epidemic, whereas it is mainly resource depletion. It was the same thing when, during the period called "Renaissance," the newly formed European states realized they needed manpower for their industries and their armies. Their reaction was indirect. It didn't consist in explaining to women in rational terms the reason why the state needed more children from them. It consisted in unleashing a hate campaign against women, accused to be witches and burned at the stake in considerable numbers. It was, in a certain way, effective. Women were pushed back to their traditional role of child-making machines. And population exploded.

Last week, I wrote a post on how witch-hunts are related to the current pandemic. Later, Timothy Sha-Ching Wong sent me some excerpts from a book by Peter Sloterdijk. He says the same thing I had said:

The misogynistic excesses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, with their numerous live burnings of women, should not be understood as a regression of modern ‘society’ into medieval ‘barbarism’, nor as an epidemic sexual neurosis, as psychoanalytical commentaries usually claim. They were rather the hallmark of early modernity itself, which followed its main impulse in accordance with the new demographic imperative: to ensure an unlimited availability of subject material.

And you see how history doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it surely rhymes a lot. 

(*) Disclaimer: I am not saying here that the pandemic was invented by the powers that be, I am not saying that the virus was created in a biological weapon laboratory, I am not saying that Bill Gates is trying to kill us all with a fake vaccine, and I am not supporting any of the many conspiracy theories that we can see around the web. It should be obvious that the SARS-Cov-2 virus exists and that it is a real threat. But given the situation, such a disclaimer is necessary.


From Peter Sloterdijk’s “You Must Change Your Life” (pages 340-341). Excerpts provided by Timothy Sha-Ching Wong

“The measure of all measures in this field is the state- and church-sanctioned maximization of ‘human production’ – even Adam Smith, in his main work of 1776, speaks calmly of the ‘production of men’, which is governed by the ‘demand for men’. It was set in motion by the systematic destruction of the informal balance between the manifest patriarchy and the latent matriarchy, and thus by the annulment of the historic compromise between the sexes that, under the mantle of the church’s life-protection ethics, had become established in Europe since late antiquity and remained in force until the late Middle Ages. Hence the unprecedented offensive to enslave women to the imperative of reproduction and the systematic destruction of knowledge about birth control, which went down in history under the misleading name of ‘witch hunts’. 
As Gunnar Heinsohn showed decades ago in co-operation with Otto Steiger and Rolf Knieper, the misogynistic excesses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, with their numerous live burnings of women, should not be understood as a regression of modern ‘society’ into medieval ‘barbarism’, nor as an epidemic sexual neurosis, as psychoanalytical commentaries usually claim. They were rather the hallmark of early modernity itself, which followed its main impulse in accordance with the new demographic imperative: to ensure an unlimited availability of subject material.
With its terror against midwife-witches, the early nation-state handed its business card to ‘society’ as the latter modernized itself. The question of whether one can genuinely ascribe a ‘highly developed expertise’ to the ‘wise women’ of that time in matters of contraception will perhaps remain open; supposedly, however, over a hundred procedures for the prevention of unwanted offspring were known before the repression began – procedures whose effectiveness may, in some cases, be open to doubt. But apart from this, the consequences of ‘witch oppression’ were soon plain to see – and represent statistically. During a long period of rigid demographic policies, the modern state in alliance with the Christian clergy refused to tolerate the conventional controlling function of wives over the ‘source of humans’ at all, let alone respect it. The guided sensibility ofearly modernity declared infanticide the exemplary crime against humanity and a direct attack on the national interest; here one finds a rare case of total congruence between family and state morality.
It is anything but coincidental, then, that the greatest modern state theorist after Machiavelli, the jurist Jean Bodin (1530-96), a former Carmelite monk, distinguished himself as one of the most rabid witch hunters of all time. The writer of the epochal Six livres de la république (1576) was at once the author of the most brutal witch-hunting tracts of all time, published in Paris in 1580 under the title De la démonomanie des sorciers.
What he wanted to achieve in his dual function as the founder of the modern theory of sovereignty and master thinker of the inquisition against reproductively able but self-willed women is plain to see. The crux of the matter had already been revealed a century earlier by the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, alias The Hammer of the Witches: ‘No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives.’
From now on, Catholic faith implied an unconditional subjugation of married persons to the consequences of marital intercourse, regardless of whether they were in a position to ensure a sufficient inheritance, and thus a productive future, for their offspring – without consideration, even, for the question of whether one can expect workers with no property of their own to bring up children at all. The policy of ‘capital expansion through population increase’ calmly passed over objections of this kind. In truth, the population explosion of the Modern Age was triggered in part by the extensive incorporation of the propertyless workers, the subsequently much-discussed and usually wrongly declared ‘proletariat’, into the family and procreative praxis of late aristocratic-bourgeois ‘society’.
In matters of procreation, the attitude of most Reformation theologians was even more Catholic than that of the papacy. Martin Luther, who produced half a dozen children with Katharina von Bora, taught – intoxicated by the élan of his own faith – that Christian men should rest assured that if they increased the numbers of the faithful, God would not withhold the material means to nurture them as long as they were sufficiently diligent. Heinsohn and his colleagues incisively sum up the maxim behind such thinking: ‘Generalization of individual irresponsibility in the form of responsibility to God.’
One should note here that the concept of responsibility is significant neither in theology nor in classical moral philosophy; it only moved to the centre of ethical reflection in the course of the twentieth century, when the explosively grown problem of actions and their unintended consequences gained a large part of the moral attention.
It is undeniable, however, that to this day, Christian sexual ethics – in its official Catholic form – shows a resolute blindness to consequences that would like to be mistaken for trust in God. Because of their commitment to the protection of unborn and born life, an honourable thing in itself, Modern Age churches of all confessions acted as de facto accessories to the most cynical biopolitical operation of all time.”

This post was slightly modified after receiving suggestions from Louis Nuyens III, AD Mitchell, and an anonymous commenter.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)