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Comradeship and justice
April 18, 2020, 7:49 am
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Saving Hieronymus Bosch from the devil

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Our understanding of the medieval world is on the whole negative: long centuries marked by superstition, plagues, illiteracy, feudal bondage, and wars. We see it as a dark age bracketed by the relative brilliance of antiquity before and enlightenment after. The victors write history and much of what we believe about the medieval world was written in the 19th century to propagate this carefully crafted historical narrative.

The collapse of empire, the crusades, feudalism, and plagues are indeed dark, but there is a lot about the medieval world that is attractive: its mysticism, social life, art and architecture, and stories. Similarly, if we’re honest, there’s an awful lot to not recommend in the Western canon world we live in: its alienation, rationalism, instrumentalism, blind faith in humanism, reason and capital.

As an example, in the realm of work G. K. Chesterton noted that the medieval view was human and redeeming and our modern system decidedly debased:

The principal of medieval trade was admittedly comradeship and justice, while the principle of modern trade is avowedly competition and greed.

G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett, 1926

Strange how the highly religious medieval world comes up with such modern concepts to organize the world of work: comradeship and justice; yet we, drawing on the grand rational traditions of ancient Rome and Athens, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, evolved a system of backwardness and superstition: competition and greed. We have high priests – robed flunkies – to flog this ignorant ideology; its influence is airtight, profound, omniscient, omnipresent. They use propagandas which are part of the air we breathe: Survival of the Fittest! Healthy Competition!

Tom Hodgkinson describes the outcome of our ‘enlightened’ dark age:

The theory is that competition leads to good quality and reasonable prices in goods. But the reality is the opposite: unfettered competition, that is, commercial war, and the endless expansion that necessarily goes with it, inevitably results in monopolies, as one giant company swallows up its failed competitors.

Tim Hodgkinson, The Freedom Manifesto, p84

That’s not enlightened. We’ve no doubt entered one of Dante’s circles, or the hellscapes of Hieronymus Bosch.

It would be unfair to not at least ruminate on the effects on life built on a commitment to comradeship and justice. As we’ve seen, there is a lot of poor scholarship that pushes a view of the desperate nature of the life of the Medieval peasant; no life at any time has been a bed of roses. But we know they held to these commitments and thereby built for themselves meaningful, faithful, and social lives. And we can too.



the dogmatism of the untraveled
July 29, 2013, 10:42 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

We tend to associate liberalism with big government and big society etc. and not with business.  Except of course for the idea of free markets and more broadly market liberalism, liberal is the word reserved for bleeding hearts.

Unless you believe in the invisible hand of the market, but that’s more magical than liberal.

Liberalism like any complex idea changes meaning over time, but also by how close or how far you are from it.  Here is a far away view which reverses some of our here and now ideas about liberalism.

At its best, market liberalism manifests forms of pluralism that throw together very different kinds of people, and burnish away the rough edges of intractability that would otherwise keep them apart – or at each others’ throats. From Bertrand Russell:

What may be called, in a broad sense, the Liberal theory of politics is a recurrent product of commerce.  The first known example of it was in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, which lived by trading with Egypt and Lydia.  When Athens, in the time of Pericles, became commercial, the Athenians became Liberal.  After a long eclipse, Liberal ideas revived in the Lombard cities of the middle ages, and prevailed in Italy until they were extinguished by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.  But the Spaniards failed to reconquer Holland or to subdue England, and it was these countries that were the champions of Liberalism and the leaders in commerce in the seventeenth century.  In our day the leadership has passed to the United States.

The reasons for the connection of commerce with Liberalism are obvious.  Trade brings men into contact with tribal customs different from their own, and in so doing destroys the dogmatism of the untraveled.  The relation of buyer and seller is one of negotiation between two parties who are both free; it is most profitable when the buyer or seller is able to understand the point of view of the other party.

Bertrand Russell



yams and pigs

Even on the farm, even in so-called primitive contexts, people need to escape the bonds of family and blood and initiate relations with other people.  And this is just as true when it comes to trade and commerce as with other forms of social human interaction, says Mark Anspach in an interview excerpted below.

Some Americans – New Yorkers for instance – resist the idea of the big box retailer, and Walmart and other stores find not enough love to convince the five boroughs to let them in.  Residents don’t want the fine balance of trade, which includes mom and pops and boutiques and large retailers, being wildly disrupted by a mega retailer.  And they have the money and power to keep them out.

Other Americans are proud of big box retailers like Walmart; they like the car convenient ritual, the low prices and the enormous choice.  They identify big boxes with being American.  Often these Americans don’t have the power and money to influence how their markets function anyway.

Big is anonymous and the bulk of the money and policy that swirls around big boxes in America sets the primal impulse to trade on it’s end.  The base human economic transaction between a buyer and a seller is changed completely because the seller isn’t really in the room, nor really in the town or city, and maybe not even in the state.  Same with the goods, they are mostly in transit in the hold of an airplane or ship somewhere in the middle of a large ocean.  Same with the crafts person who makes the goods, who sits in a fluorescent lit room, one in a long row, somewhere thousands of miles across oceans and sand.

Anspach explains how economists see human trade quite differently than anthropologists.  The economic view is narrow and instrumentalist.  Buyer, seller, pig, yam.  I have pig, you have yam, we print money, we buy each others pigs and yams.

The anthropologist has a much richer view and sees trade as a critical tool for tying together members of a community and avoiding privatism and forming essential bonds with neighbors.  In this view, trade is less about getting the best deal on a farm animal, than establishing a lifelong bond by offering, in trust, your product to your neighbor as a form of gift.

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