The Dark Enlightenment (Part 4e)

Cross-coded history

Democracy is the opposite of freedom, almost inherent to the democratic process is that it tends towards less liberty instead of more, and democracy is not something to be fixed. Democracy is inherently broken, just like socialism. The only way to fix it is to break it up. Frank Karsten

Historian (mainly of science) Doug Fosnow called for the USA’s “red” counties to secede from the “blue” ones, forming a new federation. This was greeted with much skepticism by the audience, who noted that the “red” federation would get practically no seacoast. Did Doug really think such a secession was likely to happen? No, he admitted cheerfully, but anything would be better than the race war he does think is likely to happen, and it is intellectuals’ duty to come up with less horrific possibilities.John Derbyshire

Thus, rather than by means of a top-down reform, under the current conditions, one’s strategy must be one of a bottom-up revolution. At first, the realization of this insight would seem to make the task of a liberal-libertarian social revolution impossible, for does this not imply that one would have to persuade a majority of the public to vote for the abolition of democracy and an end to all taxes and legislation? And is this not sheer fantasy, given that the masses are always dull and indolent, and even more so given that democracy, as explained above, promotes moral and intellectual degeneration? How in the world can anyone expect that a majority of an increasingly degenerate people accustomed to the “right” to vote should ever voluntarily renounce the opportunity of looting other people’s property? Put this way, one must admit that the prospect of a social revolution must indeed be regarded as virtually nil. Rather, it is only on second thought, upon regarding secession as an integral part of any bottom-up strategy, that the task of a liberal-libertarian revolution appears less than impossible, even if it still remains a daunting one. – Hans-Hermann Hoppe

Conceived generically, modernity is a social condition defined by an integral trend, summarized as sustained economic growth rates that exceed population increases, and thus mark an escape from normal history, caged within the Malthusian trap. When, in the interest of dispassionate appraisal, analysis is restricted to the terms of this basic quantitative pattern, it supports sub-division into the (growth) positive and negative components of the trend: techno-industrial (scientific and commercial) contributions to accelerating development on the one hand, and socio-political counter-tendencies towards the capture of economic product by democratically empowered rent-seeking special interests on the other (demosclerosis). What classical liberalism gives (industrial revolution) mature liberalism takes away (via the cancerous entitlement state). In abstract geometry, it describes an S-curve of self-limiting runaway. As a drama of liberation, it is a broken promise.

Conceived particularly, as a singularity, or real thing, modernity has ethno-geographical characteristics that complicate and qualify its mathematical purity. It came from somewhere, imposed itself more widely, and brought the world’s various peoples into an extraordinary range of novel relations. These relations were characteristically ‘modern’ if they involved an overflowing of previous Malthusian limits, enabling capital accumulation, and initiating new demographic trends, but they conjoined concrete groups rather than abstract economic functions. At least in appearance, therefore, modernity was something done by people of a certain kind with, and not uncommonly to (or even against), other people, who were conspicuously unlike them. By the time it was faltering on the fading slope of the S-curve, in the early 20th century, resistance to its generic features (‘capitalistic alienation’) had become almost entirely indistinguishable from opposition to its particularity (‘European imperialism’ and ‘white supremacy’). As an inevitable consequence, the modernistic self-consciousness of the system’s ethno-geographical core slid towards racial panic, in a process that was only arrested by the rise and immolation of the Third Reich.

Given modernity’s inherent trend to degeneration or self-cancellation, three broad prospects open. These are not strictly exclusive, and are therefore not true alternatives, but for schematic purposes it is helpful to present them as such.

(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. (India, sadly, seems to be too far gone in its native version of demosclerosis to seriously compete.)

(2) Postmodernity. Amounting essentially to a new dark age, in which Malthusian limits brutally re-impose themselves, this scenario assumes that Modernity 1.0 has so radically globalized its own morbidity that the entire future of the world collapses around it. If the Cathedral ‘wins’ this is what we have coming.

(3) Western Renaissance. To be reborn it is first necessary to die, so the harder the ‘hard reboot’ the better. Comprehensive crisis and disintegration offers the best odds (most realistically as a sub-theme of option #1).

Because competition is good, a pinch of Western Renaissance would spice things up, even if – as is overwhelmingly probable — Modernity 2.0 is the world’s principal highway to the future. That depends upon the West stopping and reversing pretty much everything it has been doing for over a century, excepting only scientific, technological, and business innovation. It is advisable to maintain rhetorical discipline within a strictly hypothetical mode, because the possibility of any of these things is deeply colored by incredibility:

(1) Replacement of representational democracy by constitutional republicanism (or still more extreme anti-political governmental mechanisms).

(2) Massive downsizing of government and its rigorous confinement to core functions (at most).

(3) Restoration of hard money (precious metal coins and bullion deposit notes) and abolition of central banking.

(4) Dismantling of state monetary and fiscal discretion, thus abolishing practical macroeconomics and liberating the autonomous (or ‘catallactic’) economy. (This point is redundant, since it follows rigorously from 2 & 3 above, but it’s the real prize, so worth emphasizing.)

There’s more – which is to say, less politics – but it’s already absolutely clear that none of this is going to happen short of an existential civilizational cataclysm. Asking politicians to limit their own powers is a non-starter, but nothing less heads even remotely in the right direction. This, however, isn’t even the widest or deepest problem.

Democracy might begin as a defensible procedural mechanism for limiting government power, but it quickly and inexorably develops into something quite different: a culture of systematic thievery. As soon as politicians have learnt to buy political support from the ‘public purse’, and conditioned electorates to embrace looting and bribery, the democratic process reduces itself to the formation of (Mancur Olson’s) ‘distributional coalitions’ – electoral majorities mortared together by common interest in a collectively advantageous pattern of theft. Worse still, since people are, on average, not very bright, the scale of depredation available to the political establishment far exceeds even the demented sacking that is open to public scrutiny. Looting the future, through currency debauchment, debt accumulation, growth destruction, and techno-industrial retardation is especially easy to conceal, and thus reliably popular. Democracy is essentially tragic because it provides the populace with a weapon to destroy itself, one that is always eagerly seized, and used. Nobody ever says ‘no’ to free stuff. Scarcely anybody even sees that there is no free stuff. Utter cultural ruination is the necessary conclusion.

Within the final phase of Modernity 1.0, American history becomes the master narrative of the world. It is there that the great Abrahamic cultural conveyor culminates in the secularized neo-puritanism of the Cathedral, as it establishes the New Jerusalem in Washington DC. The apparatus of Messianic-revolutionary purpose is consolidated in the evangelical state, which is authorized by any means necessary to install a new world order of universal fraternity, in the name of equality, human rights, social justice, and – above all – democracy. The absolute moral confidence of the Cathedral underwrites the enthusiastic pursuit of unrestrained centralized power, optimally unlimited in its intensive penetration and its extensive scope.

With an irony altogether hidden from the witch-burners’ spawn themselves, the ascent of this squinting cohort of grim moral fanatics to previously unscaled heights of global power coincides with the descent of mass-democracy to previously unimagined depths of gluttonous corruption. Every five years America steals itself from itself again, and fences itself back in exchange for political support. This democracy thing is easy – you just vote for the guy who promises you the most stuff. An idiot could do it. Actually, it likes idiots, treats them with apparent kindness, and does everything it can to manufacture more of them.

Democracy’s relentless trend to degeneration presents an implicit case for reaction. Since every major threshold of socio-political ‘progress’ has ratcheted Western civilization towards comprehensive ruin, a retracing of its steps suggests a reversion from the society of pillage to an older order of self-reliance, honest industry and exchange, pre-propagandistic learning, and civic self-organization. The attractions of this reactionary vision are evidenced by the vogue for 18th century attire, symbols, and constitutional documents among the substantial (Tea Party) minority who clearly see the disastrous course of American political history.

Has the ‘race’ alarm sounded in your head yet? It would be amazing if it hadn’t. Stagger back in imagination before 2008, and the fraught whisper of conscience is already questioning your prejudices against Kenyan revolutionaries and black Marxist professors. Remain in reverse until the Great Society / Civil Rights era and the warnings reach hysterical pitch. It’s perfectly obvious by this point that American political history has progressed along twin, interlocking tracks, corresponding to the capacity and the legitimation of the state. To cast doubt upon its scale and scope is to simultaneously dispute the sanctity of its purpose, and the moral-spiritual necessity that it command whatever resources, and impose whatever legal restraints, may be required to effectively fulfill it. More specifically, to recoil from the magnitude of Leviathan is to demonstrate insensitivity to the immensity – indeed, near infinity – of inherited racial guilt, and the sole surviving categorical imperative of senescent modernity – government needs to do more. The possibility, indeed near certainty, that the pathological consequences of chronic government activism have long ago supplanted the problems they originally targeted, is a contention so utterly maladapted to the epoch of democratic religion that its practical insignificance is assured.

Even on the left, it would be extraordinary to find many who genuinely believe, after sustained reflection, that the primary driver of government expansion and centralization has been the burning desire to do good (not that intentions matter). Yet, as the twin tracks cross, such is the electric jolt of moral drama, leaping the gap from racial Golgotha to intrusive Leviathan, that skepticism is suspended, and the great progressive myth installed. The alternative to more government, doing ever more, was to stand there, negligently, whilst they lynched another Negro. This proposition contains the entire essential content of American progressive education.

The twin historical tracks of state capability and purpose can be conceived as a translation protocol, enabling any recommended restraint upon government power to be ‘decoded’ as malign obstruction of racial justice. This system of substitutions functions so smoothly that it provides an entire vocabulary of (bipartisan) ‘code-words’ or ‘dog-whistles’ – ‘welfare’, ‘freedom of association’, ‘states rights’ – ensuring that any intelligible utterance on the Principal (left-right) Political Dimension occupies a double registry, semi-saturated by racial evocations. Reactionary regression smells of strange fruit.

… and that is before backing out of the calamitous 20th century. It was not the Civil Rights Era, but the ‘American Civil War’ (in the terms of the victors) or ‘War between the States’ (in those of the vanquished) that first indissolubly cross-coded the practical question of Leviathan with (black/white) racial dialectics, laying down the central junction yard of subsequent political antagonism and rhetoric. The indispensable primary step in comprehending this fatality snakes along an awkward diagonal between mainstream statist and revisionist accounts, because the conflagration that consumed the American nation in the early 1860s was wholly but non-exclusively about emancipation from slavery and about states rights, with neither ‘cause’ reducible to the other, or sufficient to suppress the war’s enduring ambiguities. Whilst there are any number of ‘liberals’ happy to celebrate the consolidation of centralized government power in the triumphant Union, and, symmetrically, a (far smaller) number of neo-confederate apologists for the institution of chattel slavery in the southern states, neither of these unconflicted stances capture the dynamic cultural legacy of a war across the codes.

The war is a knot. By practically dissociating liberty into emancipation and independence, then hurling each against the other in a half-decade of carnage, blue against gray, it was settled that freedom would be broken on the battlefield, whatever the outcome of the conflict. Union victory determined that the emancipatory sense of liberty would prevail, not only in America, but throughout the world, and the eventual reign of the Cathedral was assured. Nevertheless, the crushing of American’s second war of secession made a mockery of the first. If the institution of slavery de-legitimated a war of independence, what survived of 1776? The moral coherence of the Union cause required that the founders were reconceived as politically illegitimate white patriarchal slave-owners, and American history combusted in progressive education and the culture wars.

If independence is the ideology of slave-holders, emancipation requires the programmatic destruction of independence. Within a cross-coded history, the realization of freedom is indistinguishable from its abolition.

[Tomb]
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Calendric Dominion (Part 3)

In Search of Year Zero

A Year Zero signifies a radical re-beginning, making universal claims. In modern, especially recent modern times, it is associated above all with ultra-modernist visions of total politics, at is maximum point of utopian and apocalyptic extremity. The existing order of the world is reduced to nothing, from which a new history is initiated, fundamentally disconnected from anything that occurred before, and morally indebted only to itself. Predictably enough, among conservative commentators (in the widest sense), such visions are broadly indistinguishable from the corpse-strewn landscapes of social catastrophe, haunted by the ghosts of unrealizable dreams.

Christianity’s global Calendric Dominion is paradoxical — perhaps even ‘dialectical’ — in this regard. It provides the governing model of historical rupture and unlimited ecumenical extension, and thus of total revolution, whilst at the same time representing the conservative order antagonized by modernistic ambition. Its example incites the lurch to Year Zero, even as it has no year zero of its own. Ultimately, its dialectical provocation tends towards Satanic temptation: the promise of Anti-Christian Apocalypse, or absolute news to a second power. (“If the Christians could do it, why couldn’t we?” Cue body-counts scaling up towards infinity.)

This tension exists not only between an established Christian order and its pseudo-secular revolutionary after-image, but also within Christianity itself, which is split internally by the apparent unity and real dissociation of ‘messianic time’. The process of Christian calendric consolidation was immensely protracted. A distance of greater than half a millennium separated the clear formulation of the year count from the moment commemorated, with further centuries required to fully integrate historical recording on this basis, digesting prior Jewish, Roman, and local date registries, and laying the foundation for a universalized Christian articulation of time. By the time the revolutionary ‘good news’ had been coherently formalized into a recognizable prototype of the hegemonic Western calendar, it had undergone a long transition from historical break to established tradition, with impeccable conservative credentials.

Simultaneously, however, the process of calendric consolidation sustained, and even sharpened, the messianic expectation of punctual, and truly contemporary rupture, projected forwards as duplication, or ‘second coming’ of the initial division. Even if the moment in which history had been sundered into two parts — before and after, BC and AD — now lay in quite distant antiquity, its example remained urgent, and promissory. Messianic hope was thus torn and compacted by an intrinsic historical doubling, which stretched it between a vastly retrospective, gradually recognized beginning, and a prospect of sudden completion, whose credibility was assured by its status as repetition. What had been would be again, transforming the AD count into a completed sequence that was confirmed in the same way it was terminated (through Messianic intervention).

Unsurprisingly, the substantial history of Western calendric establishment is twinned with the rise of millenarianism, through phases that trend to increasingly social-revolutionary forms, and eventually make way for self-consciously anti-religious, although decidedly eschatological, varieties of modernistic total politics. Because whatever has happened must — at least — be possible, the very existence of the calendar supports anticipations of absolute historical rupture. Its count, simply by beginning, prefigures an end. What starts can re-start, or conclude.

Zero, however, intrudes diagonally. It even introduces a comic aspect, since whatever the importance of the Christian revelation to the salvation of our souls, it is blatantly obvious that it failed to deliver a satisfactory arithmetical notation. For that, Christian Europe had to await the arrival of the decimal numerals from India, via the Moslem Middle East, and the ensuing revolution of calculation and book-keeping that coincided with the Renaissance, along with the birth of mercantile capitalism in the city states of northern Italy.

Indeed, for anybody seeking a truly modern calendar, the Arrival of Zero would mark an excellent occasion for a new year zero (AZ 0?), around AD 1500. Although this would plausibly date the origin of modernity, the historical imprecision of the event counts against it, however. In addition, the assimilation of zero by germinal European (and thus global) capitalism was evidently gradual — if comparatively rapid — rather than a punctual ‘revolutionary’ transition of the kind commerorative calendric zero is optimally appropriate to. (If Year Zero is thus barred from the designation of its own world-historic operationalization, it is perhaps structurally doomed to misapplication and the production of disillusionment.)

The conspicuous absence of zero from the Western calendar (count), exposed in its abrupt jolt from 1 BC to AD 1, is an intolerable and irreparable stigma that brings its world irony to a zenith. In the very operation of integrating world history, in preparation for planetary modernity, it remarks its own debilitating antiquity and particularity, in the most condescending modern sense of the limited and the primitive — crude, defective and underdeveloped.

How could a moment of self-evident calculative incompetence provide a convincing origin-point for subsequent historical calculation? Year Zero escaped all possibility of conceptual apprehension at the moment in the time-count where it is now seen to belong, and infinity (the reciprocal of zero) proves no less elusive. Infinity was inserted into a time when (and place where) it demonstrably made no sense, and the extraordinary world-historical impression that it made did nothing — not even nothing– to change that situation. Is this not a worthy puzzle for theologians? Omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, yet hopeless at maths — these are not the characteristics of a revelation designed to impress technologists or accountants. All the more reason, then, to take this comedy seriously, in all its ambivalence — since the emerging world of technologists and accountants, the techno-commercial (runway-industrial, or capitalist) world that would globalize the earth, was weaned within the playpen of this calendar, and no other. Modernity had selected to date itself in a way that its own kindergarten students would scorn.

[Tomb]

Neomodernity

Claims to have discovered, or invented, the neomodern, neomodernity, or neomodernism have been announced in fields as varied as the fine arts, political and moral philosophy, theology, economics, memetics, chess, and apparently bathroom design. In sociology, Ulrich Beck’s “second modernity” is a close equivalent.

As with modernism and postmodernism, it is architecture that is central to the enduring public definition of neomodernity. Philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, but architects get to build it. Although still inchoate, a neomodern architectural landscape is quite unmistakably under construction. This is especially evident in Shanghai.

When guided by actual architectural construction, the thread leading to Shanghai neomodernity begins in Turin, with Renzo Piano’s 1989 ‘restoration’ of the Fiat Lingotto Factory. This work was exemplary in a number of respects. It balanced creation with renovation, radically upgrading and re-purposing an existing, large-scale structure, whilst venerating the original. The factory was already an iconic modernist edifice, immortalized in Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture (1923). Piano’s multi-use design mixed functional revolution with structural conservation. Hyper-contemporary features (including a rooftop bubble and new window system) employed light, transparent materials, in order to minimize structural (whilst maximizing functional) impact. In this way, an industrial plant was transformed into a hotel, leisure, exhibition and conference space, through aesthetic recapitulation of industrial heritage. The neomodern template had been laid.

It might reasonably be argued that the modern is always and inherently neomodern, that relentless, self-surpassing upgrades are hard-wired into it, from the beginning. Yet the complicating prefix is important and informative, as Piano’s demonstrates. Rather than expressing smooth, continuous improvement, neomodern construction manifests, and celebrates, discontinuity. Modernity is split and becomes, in part, past. The semi-paradoxical notion of ‘modernist heritage’ becomes an animating, or re-animating, inspiration.

Modernity dates awkwardly, and intriguingly, because it positions itself upon the leading edge of time, expressing an infusion from the future. In its vital, colloquial sense, the ‘modern’ is an indexical term that describes what is happening now, or recently. It is in this sense that modernization remains irrepressibly up-to-date, anchored, indexically, to the contemporary. To slip unanchored from the ‘now’ into the dead waters of history is thus to forsake the claim to modernity. What is distinctively past cannot be modern, and the modern cannot be simply past.

Whilst ‘vulgar’ by the standards of intellectual and technical usage, it is this popular sense of the ‘modern’ that generates its intense, agitational force. Even amongst the intelligentsia, postmodernism drew its powers of incitement from the implicit, incomprehensible claim to inhabit a moment beyond now. Whilst it is no great stretch to make the dilation or contraction of ‘now’ compatible with intuition, to float a contemporary state on the far side of now invites stimulating perplexity. (The Chinese ‘now’ is telling in this regard, with xianzai literally indicating the ‘place’ we are ‘first at’, where we always start, beginning arithmetically.)

In the fine arts, the consensual distinction between the ‘modern’ and the ‘contemporary’ resolves this tension, but only by draining the word ‘modern’ of its colloquial and provocative sense, leaving only a husk of historical reference. To care about these words and movements, however, is to insist that modernity, even primordial modernity, resists absorption into accomplished history, because it relates to an absolute future. The dynamized now of modernity is irreducible to a period or moment in time. What modernity discovered, and perpetually recalls, was not just the next thing up the road, but the road ahead in general, and perhaps even the road.

Shanghai reached escape velocity into neomodernity comparatively recently. The turn-of-the-millennium Xintiandi development, for instance, was a mile-stone in urban restoration, but was only embryonically, and perhaps also retrospectively, neomodern. A far clearer example of the architectural trends represented by Piano is found at the Red Town development, which dates back to 2004.

The archetypal neomodern project is a ‘creative cluster’, and Red Town is no exception. It consists of a radically renovated industrial site, re-animated as an arts and leisure hub. At its geographical edge, and conceptual center, sits the huge shell of the Shanghai Steel Company’s old No.10 Steel Plant, now home to the Shanghai Sculpture Space (SSS). In definitive neomodern style, the monumental relics of heavy industry have been embraced and re-vitalized: not merely restored, but aesthetically transfigured.

In the first years of the SSS, huge pieces of rusted machinery, extracted from the re-purposed buildings, lay scattered amongst and alongside the outdoor sculptures, as if deliberately scrambling the boundaries of art and scrap. Some of this detritus, most notably a jumble of massive gutters that once served as conduits for molten metal, have been reborn as postindustrial artworks.

At the heart of the neomodern lies something akin to a field of ruins, yet there is nothing remotely Ozymandian about these remains. They attest more strongly to resilient (if interrupted) survival, than to disappearance and oblivion. Their message is renaissance.

Above all, perhaps, the neomodern is manifested indirectly, through display spaces. It points away from itself, and towards what it revives, in the manner of contemporary museum design, with its ideal of invisible mediation. Its pride is adapted to an information age, in which subtlety trumps assertion, inventive perception supplants self-expression, and flexible anticipation outperforms stubborn purpose.

“We want to demolish museums and libraries” Marinetti declared, in his futurist manifesto, raging against the dead hand of the past. Yet, to make a museum exhibit of modernity is not to mortify, but rather the opposite. The tenacious vitality of the modern is conspicuously demonstrated by the fact that it has not remained what it was. The death of the shell is the life of the chick.

The Shanghai neomodern style is at once jarringly crude and hyper-refined, orchestrating a hard (or hard/soft) juxtaposition of heavy metal remnants and intangible design. It exults in the most cyclopean, stressed, and time-tortured structures: scorched and rusted girders, massive chains, vast slabs of semi-crumbled brickwork, pitted concrete, splintered masonry, the cavernous, eroded shells of warehouses and machine shops. Its preferred heritage components are characterized by relentlessly prosaic, brutal, industrial functionalism, expressed on a mind-crushing scale.

Around and amongst these paleo-modernist dinosaur skeletons, it weaves an exquisite web of maximally-dematerialized and near-transparent structures, emphasizing lightness, subtlety, openness, and innovation. High-bandwidth digital communications, intelligent environmental control systems, hydroponically-nourished creeping plants, hyper-designed furnishings, tastefully understated interior decoration and sophisticated artworks complete the metamorphosis.

Neomodernity is at once more modernity, and modernity again. By synthesizing (accelerating) progressive change with cyclic recurrence, it produces a distinctive schema or figure: the time spiral. But that is to get a little beyond ourselves…

Postcript
With peculiar synchronicity, half an hour after posting this, a copy of Wonsuk Chang’s essay ‘Reflections on Time and Related Ideas in the Yijing’ arrived in my inbox. The article ends:

“Time in the Yijing may serve a conservative purpose – namely, restoring the past. But it also serves the creative purpose of producing novelty. These two aspects of time do not contradict each other. Many passages in the Yijing, if not all, express that what restores the past simultaneously involves some element of novel creation. The process begins from its incipient movement and finally reaches the point where creative novelty emerges. This evolutionary process is that of an advancing spiral, which ever produces novelty while simultaneously returning again and again to the nascent sources.”