Sunday, October 23, 2011

Confluence and Coincidence -- the Calculus of 99 Percent

What do the 99 Percent stand for? Since the OWS movement started, that has been the question repeatedly asked, not only by corporate politicians and pundits but also by voices from the progressive-left. The frustrating non answer from “the movement” has been: nothing & everything.

This formlessness makes people decidedly uncomfortable. Geometry is a fundamental construct of the human mind and, as a result, the need to “box things in” becomes a basic intellectual urge. “Ti esti?” -- “what is it?” was the first and most annoying question Socrates kept asking.

Among political analysts and strategists, the Socratic question gets translated into: How can you achieve anything if you don’t lay down goals and demands? The question is certainly not illogical. Apart from boxing things in, if you don’t have a formulated destination, how can you get there, wherever there might be?

Isn’t the calculus of politics all about platforms and goals? It is. But the calculus of history -- that is, of whether movements will be successful or not -- is a different issue. What makes things happen and why do they happen the way they do?

Once Newton had explained the motions of the heavenly bodies and why things fall the way they do, Western philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Marx applied their minds to deducing the laws of history. If we can figure this out, so the thinking goes, we can soothsay the future.

Tolstoy was skeptical. His epic ‘War and Peace’ was an account of individuals within the inexorable flow of events. At the end of the novel he wrote an “Epilogue” in which he sought to explain the “calculus of history.”

Tolstoy dismissed the notion that “the movement of the peoples at the time of the Crusades” or “the ferment of the peoples of the West at the end of the Eighteenth Century” could be explained by the activities of popes, magnates or kings and “their mistresses and ministers.”

The French, he says, did not invade Russia because Napoleon wrote certain letters to Vienna and issued certain orders on a particular date. “Why then did the French invade Russia?” Tolstoy asks. “Because the impetus of the nation drove them there; and when the impetus was spent they receded back home. The letters and orders of Napoleon simply coincided with the will of the people; other letters he wrote, which did not, are simply forgotten.”

By a confluence of motives, Tolstoy did mean an identity of motives, or in other words, a shared platform of goals. On the contrary, he assumed that the 100,000 individual motives that made up the Army of the French were entirely idiosyncratic. The motives, each different from the other, simply flowed together and gave rise to an impulse in a given direction.

Just as Tolstoy was dismissive of attributed causes which seek to explain an event, he was equally unimpressed by strategies which seek to bring about a result. His hero of the war was General Kutuzof who was excoriated as an incompetent as he retreated before Napoleon’s advance and hailed as a hero as he advanced after Napoleon’s retreat.

Kutuzof understood the “calculus of history;” Napoleon (at that point) did not. In Tolstoy’s opinion, the calculus of history is formed by the swelling confluence of a myriad of individual motives and impulses which are beyond human calculation.

Tolstoy’s Epilogue finds little resonance in an epoch addicted to the scientific method. We want maps not the meandering of a herd. The Occupation Movement, we are told, needs a brilliant, cunning strategist in the order of Carl Rove or at least in the magnitude of Lenin!

The historians among the strategists will argue that the Occupiers will fail unless they come up with a strategy. After all, is it not true that the Peasant’s Revolt in 14th Century England and the Peasant’s War in 16th Century Germany failed for want of a map?

This is not a patently unreasonable argument; but it is based on a false historical premise. The picture painted by the 14th and 16th century feudal-bourgeoisie was that of a rudderless mob of angry, dirty, uppity peasants who, being ignorant, resentful and dirty got what they deserved. Most subsequent historians have simply accepted the propaganda of the triumphant party as fact.

But the propaganda is over-painted. The coming together of English, and later German, peasants certainly was that “swelling of impulses” which Tolstoy says is the calculus of history. But it is incorrect to say that the peasants had no platform. In both cases, the uprising had very specific demands.

The English and German peasant revolts provide a good historical analogy for today’s 99 Percenters. In both cases, the peasant class was being destroyed by excessive taxation and laws which embarrassed their economic development.

In order to see how this was the case, it is first necessary to disentangle one’s thought from the anti-feudal capitalist propaganda that passes for orthodox history.

It is typically said that the peasants revolted against the oppressions of serfdom. But that is incorrect. Since the 4th Century, serfdom had provided much desired economic security. It may have bound the peasant to his land but it also prevented foreclosure on his land. What is called feudalism was a complex balance of horizontal and vertical economic flows. What caused the peasants’ revolt was that, as feudalism gradually gave way to a nascent capitalism, the flows down were all but eliminated by the suck ups.

The unbalancing of the feudal equilibrium was not just a matter of taxation but also of the privatization of common lands. For centuries the common use of fields, forests and streams had served as a kind of “public service” to the peasantry and these were now be foreclosed on and handed over to private individuals. Thus, the Twelve Articles of the German revolt (1525) demanded the return of communal lands.

The disequilibrium was also the result of legal class war. A major cause of the English revolt was the Statute of Labourers (1351) which forbade workers from demanding better pay and working conditions. What was occurring in both England and Germany was a gradual but inexorable dis possession and reduction of what had been a stable and relatively prosperous class.

Of course it was entirely within the interest of the newly emerging feudal-bourgeoisie to mischaracterize the balance they were destroying, so that to this day people are taught and believe what boils down to capitalist revisionism. Feudalism was by no means perfect, but it was a remarkably stable, generally equitable, and culturally democratic system. It did not last near 1000 years by being unremittingly unjust.

Once feudalism is cast in a more balanced light, the analogy between the peasants’ revolts and today’s Indignados and 99 Percenters can be seen. In all cases a defined and previously secured class protests against economic pillage, political disempowerment and cultural monopolization.

In each of these cases, the problem of the movement was not a failure to formulate specific demands. Nor was it a failure of collective impulses. The peasants’ revolts ultimately failed because both the substance of popular impulse and the form of their goals failed to coincide with an historical cycle.

The peasants’ revolts illustrate that Tolstoy’s calculus is only half correct. It is not sufficient to say (as he would) that the revolts failed because the collective impulse “spent” itself. No impulse lasts forever. The question is whether the impulse engages into a wheel that moves events.

Here the prognosis becomes elusive. Whether we regard history as cyclical or progressive, the critical factor becomes knowing where in the historical cycle (or progression) the present moment stands. This in turn becomes a question of knowing whether the present moment is a time to build on pre-existing achievements or to destroy the existing order.

If the confluence of impulses flows in a destructive direction and if the “historical moment” is one which is fertile for destruction, then the “movement” will amount to something. If not, not e converso.

Is all this not just a pompous way of singing Que serĂ¡, serĂ¡? I think it’s a tad more than that. It gives us a set of values to balance-out in an historical equation.

The peasants’ revolts failed not because there wasn’t a confluence of impulses among the peasantry, but because that confluence did not coincide with a generative stage as represented by the capitalist movement. The West was not simply destroying something old but building up to something new. The peasants, for all their radical “communistic” articles, wanted to revert to the statu quo ante; a quo ante that itself had started when the collective impulse of the German Barbarians had coincided with the decadence of the Roman Empire in a moment that was fertile for destruction.

Those who are quick to quibble will point out that every end is a beginning and all creation entails destruction. And right they are. All I can say is that if soothsaying were a matter of mere logic anyone could predict the future. But soothsaying is not mere logic. The one-eyed Russian general sniffed the wind, the world historical Man of the Moment got it all wrong. In this respect, Tolstoy was right.

The absence of a platform by the 99 Percenters is not critical. A platform will eventually emerge from the confluence of impulses assembled; and that emergence will manifest democracy in its most raw and pure form.

But whether the 99 Percenters succeed, depends on whether their impulse is revolutionary or reformist and, whichever it is, whether the present historical moment is one of generation or decay.

That is my calculus.

©Woodchip Gazette, 2011


Unknown said...

As always, appreciate your long historical perspective. My piece at Episcopal Cafe begins with a similar question (no program? no agenda?) and goes, I hope to complementary conclusions to this. Thanks, Chip:

Donald Schell

l'oeuf said...

Thanks Chip. Haven't checked out the Episcopal Cafe but interestingly enough, I was just reading this on Byliner:
Should the Woodchip Gazette be on Byliner? I say a resounding yes