Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 - Cecil Woodham-Smith

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish peasantry had become so dependent upon the potato for their survival and livelihood that poor Irish women scarcely knew how to prepare other foods. According to historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, when the crop failed it was inevitable that a people, who annually dealt with lean times verging on a starvation-lifestyle, would suffer mightily. What was entirely avoidable, was that the depths of the famine would reach such biblical proportions that perhaps 1.5 million Irish would die, and that the peasantry would be essentially forced to emigrate, thus altering the country's history such that effects were still felt a hundred years hence. While soil chemistry and agricultural pathology may have birthed the Irish Potato Famine, it was the work of men which turned hunger into a veritable holocaust. The disregard of British politicians and Irish landholders for the peasantry verged upon acts of willful genocide.

Woodham-Smith casts the most destructive impacts of the famine as those caused by an adherence to illusions of market economic theory. Relying upon forces of price and the ability of labor to jump-start spending and economic activity, during the first two years of the famine British policy makers cast about for ways to productively employ the peasantry. Road construction programs (terminating in the middle of nowhere), measures to combat soil erosion (for untended fields), and other manual labor attempts fell short for want of basic skills, but, more importantly, for a lack of affordable goods to sustain livelihoods. Policy makers and government officials, from their seat of power in London, saw the problem not as one of sustenance, but of economy; all-too-often providing food for the Irish meant helping them procure employment so as to partake in the economy. Once it became universally understood that a people without food cannot hope to work to earn food, it was for so many Irish, simply too late.

Blame for the worst impacts of the famine thus rests at the feet of a men who subjected humane ways of thinking to an economic calculus. Woodham-Smith suggests that a veritable perfect storm of pre-capitalist land tenure, combined with market economic forces, so greatly alienated the Irish masses from the land which they relied upon, that a tenuous position must yield widespread hardship. That it would lead to large-scale ruin and death need not have been inevitable, however, it has come to seem unavoidable. The greatest tragedy is perhaps that the famine never really ended. Concentrated land-holdings did not disappear, rather the Irish struggled on and continued to similarly suffer throughout the nineteenth century. Woodham-Smith places a great deal of emphasis on the iterative character of the natural and economic feedbacks, which would doom so many. Preceding the development of the welfare state, and, to some extent, the welfare global community, Ireland's Great Hunger demonstrated the all-too-real implications for a purely economic manner of treating human life.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Philosophy of Social Ecology - Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin pursues a philosophy consisting of man and nature, within a unified continuum. It is through the notion of becoming - that things are in the process of fulfilling their potential, as created by their interactive growth within a co-produced world - that Bookchin finds the unifying thread between ecology and society.

Crucial to Bookchin's concept is the assertion that potentiality exists in the here and now, as not only part of any thing's being, but as the fundamental aspect of it. Because potentiality has a history in the things that preceded it, its creation in the world can be traced as an arrival of interactions (emergence, it would seem, guarantees existence). This potentiality is of central import because the interactivity of reality continually builds towards complexity and subjectivity, and it is in relation to this development that an objective ethics becomes feasible. What fosters such complexity and variety of cognition must too, according to Bookchin, be an intrinsic good, as it encourages development towards the fulfillment of evolution. We therefore have the beginning point for an ethic which consists of both man and nature - to Bookchin's thinking one of the insuperable cleavage points in western philosophy. Because our reasoning and increasing subjectivity finds its origin in the natural world, we are given a grounding for an ethics which encompasses both.

The foremost problem with the myriad conclusions from Bookchin's application of a certain brand of dialectics, is the narrowness of his purview concerning concepts of development. Bookchin's assertion that more complex and subjective phenomena are increasingly arising from the natural, groundlessly imputes a specific teleological thinking onto the natural world. That phenomena have become more complex and subjective in historical time, whether a supported assertion or no, does not guarantee the primacy of this particular characteristic. Assessing reality based-upon the presence, absence, or differing shades of a developing continuum of consciousness becomes problematic when other manners of assessment are marginalized by a specific epistemology-cum-ontology. Ignoring other aspects of being threatens to straight-jacket reality. As the adage goes, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." How we assess the world dramatically impacts what we are able to see.

Bookchin's dialectical leanings, and his assertions that evolution and ecological interactions foster differentiation and complexity, are insights in need of broader social sympathy. Nevertheless, the notion that the pontential created by dialectical processes is an expression of objective morality remains a groundless teleology favoring human ways of being in the universe. While a historical development, from a "metabolic self-maintenance" to more rational self-expressions, may emerge from natural processes, the occurrence of such transformations does nothing to suggest their relationship to the good, whether social or metaphysically defined. Positing such undermines the value of the dialectic from the start: the dialectic itself becomes simply a manifestation of supra-mundane phenomena. We risk an interactive reality driven primarily by some illusory Other - beware the realm of Forms. While Bookchin has certainly made headway towards a more integrated perspective on people and things, his insistence upon the cumulative nature of the dialectic remains problematic.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Great Transformation - Karl Polanyi

Daily our lives enact the hopes of a stark utopia. The free market system aims at achieving 'the greatest good for the greatest' through the market's ability to measure, and respond to, the needs and desires of individuals. While we may think of the market as nested within society, Karl Polanyi inverts this notion to suggest that society has become nested within market logics. This so-called "Great Transformation" renders men and women as economic entities. This is an assessment not only of the primary interests of the individual, but the extent to which each of us ought to be measured. It is the agglomeration of individual goods, transformed into the broader good of society, which is supposedly the goal of the free market approach. Polanyi argues that this utopian ideal is impossible. The total extension of the free market, he argues, would achieve no more or less than the destruction of society.

We are well-served to remember that the creation of the market society was specifically a historical occurrence nested within certain political and social contexts. This transition away from the period of state formation in the 17th and 18th centuries, into one of increasing global interconnection, altered the logic and balances of power. As states became awash in broader contexts their interactions took on a decidedly more economic air. Economic liberalism suggested that trade between countries and regions held the power to deliver men wealth beyond what heretofore had been possible. Of course, with winners there are losers, and the backlash of protectionism fostered deepening institutional strains. The requirements of greater production demanded the transformation, not only of industry and economy, but of landscapes, geographies, and human interactions. These transformations rested upon contradictory balances which required the careful governance of society and economy to ensure the 'proper' functioning of markets. In Polanyi's estimation the free market has never, nor can it ever, truly exist. Rather, society is an arrangement of priorities favoring certain economic values at the expense of broader human and environmental concerns. The isolation of the market, as the nexus of society, from these varying concerns, is, perhaps, the strangest of movements in the modern world.

It is this isolation of man from his broader concerns, and standardization of interactions, that renders the modern world something new under the sun. The freedom of modern society is rightly conceived as primarily freedom within a narrowly defined economic sphere: as long as we don't threaten the proper functioning of the market (read: society), freedom is ours to explore. However, any social organization is a negotiation of freedom regarding certain expectations of contract. The question becomes if the balance of society forecloses the expression of our broader freedoms. Society has become the new reality, how we measure and balance our desires and the expression of our humanity within it potentially authors further transformations.