1992. More on Trump

The US that trump attacks is the US that in fact has been in many ways the enemy of the people who voted for him, or support him now. The country was run for the benefit of the 1% and the professional class and is most associated with the Clinton’s, Obama and less well known, Geithner and Larry Summers.

If we are to recreate the country as a good place to live we must take on this issue, which requires recognizing the legitimacy of Trump support in the concrete details of what was happening to the majority prior to Trump’s announcing his candidacy.  As we know, peple were losing out, incomes down, social mobility less, and – let’s give people some credit – climate change  not being addressed, hence not serious.  Remember, a support in politics always is in the context of the alternatives. The Democratic party has not been presenting itself as – well, as anything. Not a good alternative.

I am reading The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715 by Pail Hazard, It contains the wonderful

“Spain alone had dimmed her radiance. We will not say that even now she did not fling over Europe some rays of a light that could not be extinguished; but it is a hard task for a nation to go on indefinitely keeping ahead of her rivals. It means she must never falter, never exhaust her strength, never cease to keep bright, and to diffuse around her far and wide the radiance of her pristine glory. But by this time Spain had ceased to live in the present. The last thirty years of the seventeenth century, and, for the matter of that, the first thirty of the eighteenth, were with her well-nigh completely barren. Never before, throughout her whole intellectual history, says Ortega y Gasset, had her heart beat so feebly. Wrapt up in herself, she presented an attitude of lofty indifference towards the rest of the world. Travellers continued to visit her, but they did not conceal the disdain with which she inspired them. They harped on her defects—a populace wallowing in superstition, a court sunk in ignorance. They enlarged on the decay of her commerce and spoke contemptuously of the sloth and vainglory of her people. As for her writers, he foreign critics repeatedly gave instances of their pretentious and affected style.. people were begining to say not only that Spain had lost her power and influence, but that she was a traiter to her wn genius  Her romantic spirit, her national pride, her nice sense of honour, her love of justice, her complete unselfishness—all those qualities which had been her particular pride and glory, Cervantes in his Don Quixote had held up to ridicule. And the Spaniards by applauding Don Quixote had belied their nature and disowned their birthright. Absurd as it was, this idea was not more absurd than a host of other reproaches with which nations competing for leadership have sought to give the coup de grâce to their already weakening rivals.”



1991. Progress vs cycles. Implications for us.

Provocation # 143Progress vs cycles. Implications for us

The current state of society brings into question the necessity, even the likelihood, of progress. But is progress actually so wonderful? Paul Valery wrote in 1900, “We later civilizations, we too know that we are vulnerable.” This was a shock to me when I read it in high school. It has continued to put an edge to all my thinking. My current thinking about “progress” is pushed by recent research on the quality of life – better diet, few working hours – of hunter gatherers, and their obvious resistance to settlements (James C. Scott, Against the Grain).

We of course are too formed by the goods of modern society to be able to become cooperative foragers, and the world is too crowded to escape the needs of technological supports, but that doesn’t prevent us from looking at other lives as preferable, even if not for us. We do not know the extent of changes in living that will be demanded of he next generations, but they may be extreme. It is our opportunity to be helpful by pointing out things that may be positive in these forced changes. Aristotle wrote “We can have growth without development and development without growth.” Instead of struggling to get more which has led to inequality and climate damage, a rearrangement of what we have. Intriguing, as we are looking for clues to what, in difficult times, we can do.

There have been two main views of the structure of history: progress and cycles. The West is strongly committed to the perspective that history is a progression: if we can just keep going, things will continue to get better. We have accepted the idea that there is “progress”: fire, electricity, railroads, smartphones. And yet there is concern now that progress may have stalled. Most societies outside the West seem to have held on to a belief in the dominant role of cycles. Rome believed that emperors came in cycles – good, mediocre, bad, good mediocre bad. I think China had a similar sense of emperors coming in cycles. Christian culture has only one: from God’s creation of the world to his ending it. This is a true suicidal wish for a society. The Christian view of dominating the earth and the needs of the mission made growth seem essential.

Our Western civilization is very materialist and technological. Often we hear that a new tech can save the situation. But the human side of history is largely ignored by our dehumanized culture. All societies made of humans show people in roles of leadership, follower-ship, dominated and submissive that are easy to recognize.

Proposition: while material culture changes and some sense of “progress” can be discerned (though nuclear war, surveillance culture, iatrogenic diseases, our inability to cope with climate and population should lead us to question this), the range of human types does not. The inter-generational and cross class dynamics are easy to understand in all societies. Stephen Greenblatt’s new book Tyrant is about how deeply Shakespeare explored these moments. (And its resonance with Trump is constantly present in the book but not stated.)

Put differently: however radical the shifts in technology, the human repertoire of responses remains constant. The benefits of materialism may be seductive but illusory if the quality of lived life of humans with each other is the goal.

All civilizations go through a rise and a fall. Anthropologists explore how the rise starts and writers like Joseph Tainter have explored some of the aspects of the Fall In his Collapse of Complex Societies as does Castells in his book about network induced collapse,  Aftermath. Toynbee in his Study of History uses civilizations as the unit of analysis (he discusses 23, most of which I had never heard of).

As a first approximation lets look at empires (civilizations) as having three phases. (This is of course arbitrary, and much is still to be said about how the phases move from one to the next. Eric Voegelin has written extensively about the mythic structure of three part histories) The three phases are start, middle and end, or rise, stability and decline.)
The major human repertoire within all society are the recognizably the same. In the phase of rising: euphoria and awe and thanking the gods mixed with fear of change and loss of the old; a feeling of stability and smugness and superiority during the middle phase, and fear, dread and scapegoating (see Rene Girard on imitation of desire) during decline. The phases are long enough that people and intellectuals come to accept the quality of the phase as the way things are. The transitions between phases are long and chaotic. Cycle-minded societies, such as the Aztec or classical Greek have ready explanations for change, but the linear minded West, mostly through Middle Eastern influence, has held on to progressive explanations even through bad times. The current mood in the West assumes progress is normal and asks why we are stalled. Asking to speed up progress might actually hasten decline.

As decline begins to be noticed elites restructure law so they continue to benefit at the mid phase rate, but since there is actual decline they must extract more from the poor in order to maintain the illusion of progress. This speeds up the decline. In all societies we can say that there has been progress on the material side (though the collapse of the environment, wars, plagues should put even this in question.) But on the human side the emotional philosophical and political feelings and thought are fairly much the same for every culture’s phase in the cycle. The culture of the phase tends to be perceived as human nature by the people living it. This is actually a barrier to imagination about human possibilities. We get for example books with titles like Religion in Human Evolution (Robert Bellah), assuming evolution and hence progress. (The word evolution implies the un-folding of predetermined structure.) The unit of thought is the species, not empires or civilizations.

Toynbee’s unit of analysis – the civilizations, shows a different approach criticized by most historian who do not want to think outside the boundaries of the single civilization of which they are a part. We get for example the very good history The Rise of the West, by McNeill, made confusing by his sub-titling it A history of the Human Community. Gibbon’s famous history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by focusing on one phase (or Is that two?) makes it easier to not see that there is a whole cycle. I remember in school that the book was treated a fairly irrelevant since the Romans made mistakes leading to their decline but we, having had the Enlightenment, were not going to make similar mistakes and so we had nothing to learn from Rome. Toynbee’s view takes on more relevance as we begin to question the possibilities for Western Civilization now. Can we imagine we are at the end? Many people think so and having a hard time with it. Westerners who study Asia can more easily deal with cycles for empires as in the very interesting book, Strange Parallels by Victor Lieberman ,which actually compares rise and falls in the West with those in Asia.

Deep thinking says don’t get hysterical about the phase we are in as though continuous progress were possible if we would just do the right thing. For Example, the push for more innovation that just happens to be owned by corporations that are helping to concentrate wealth. Realize that the management, leadership, and cultural tasks shift with each phase. We should face where we are, and respond realistically
The shift to the next phase in the cycle can probably be hastened or delayed, but not overcome Human consistently respond with awe and delight in the beginning, self satisfaction and narrowness of theory in the middle, fear and blame as decline sets in. Leadership tends to share participation (everyone is needed) in the beginning, but starts to maneuver for advantage in the second, and abandons the society in the third.

This whole dynamic of human response is not part of physical nature but a blend of human cognitive, emotional and cultural capacity. “Education” is an attempt to overcome this dynamic but each generation, each person, starts to slowly wake from the dream of their own life into an awareness of the historical moment, and a new generation takes over before he process of education has gone very deep.

The proposal here is that for empires the way people are thinking and the felt quality of their life is determined by the phase they are in . “Progress” is understandable as a way of seeing the world as their society is in the rise and into the stability phase, just as fear and despair and blame are understandable as necessary reactions to decline.

People being what they are and organized into classes, will vary in their response since the poor will feel the effects (though maybe not the awareness) of decline first and the rich last, just as the rich will feel the effects and opportunities of the rise long before the poor (who will suffer even in an upward “progressive” era. Though a rise in expectations tends to draw in more participation from the poorer because of the increase in constructive activity requiring workers. This happened after the plague of 1340’s when the die off of workers led to a rise in wages as rebuilding required more effort.

This view, that progresses is limited to a phase in the life of empires, and that human nature shows itself in similar ways in all societies, has implications for leadership and policy.

The task :
1. Recognize the impact of empire rise and fall. Recognize that the cycles overlap and describe some segments of society but they are not all in synch. Decline can begin in one part of society while another part is still on the rise. But note the emotional reactions of people are fairly consistent with the phase their whole society is in. Contagion and imitation are powerful across a whole empire, even the globe. People across class lines are part of the same culture and there is a homogeneity to the emotions released by the phase the society is moving through.

2. Understand that the year does not come with a label as to where in the cycle we are. It is a question of comparing narratives, being intuitive, doing lots of reading and traveling, and still maybe getting it wrong. But we can do well enough that it is worth the effort.
2. Try to avoid the negative impact on the poor of the shift of society from one phase to the next. A major opportunity for serious thinking can happen as one empire gives way to another: Macedonia to Rome or Feudalism to Industrialization as examples. The tendency is for class interest to prevail through such transitions. Raymond Williams in The Country and the City describes how many country landholders became urban industrialists in England’s 18th and 19th centuries.

3. Design new institutions and governance, as well as infrastructure for flexibility because static “permanent” structures are actually frail under conditions of real change. Most of the world elites’ large estates were built with the idea of dynasty and continuity of inheritance across at least a few generations. In the US most of those became schools, institutes or condos within a generation as major changes were constantly at play.

4. Realize that lives have to be lived now , children born, food to be eaten sociably, sleep to be secure, building and participating should be encouraged and rewarding. Encourage belief in the value of coping in the rolling present (a few years back and a few years into the future.). Self development and social development should work together to make the best of what might be a bad situation.

1980. dream

last night, dream of my visiting an art school. I start in a studio, architecture students all straight lines in their drawings. the kind of design we can call “dollar per sq foot architecture.”, post bauhaus, bauhaus without quality. i wonder down the hall, well, not wandering, searching. I come to a dance studio, the same kind of room, concrete high windows, cubed, painted institutional green. Somehow a conversation and the students between moves on the floor are talking about asking for organic spaces. I am thinking, each has the answer for the other, how to get them together? One dealing with the body and its aliveness, and the other with materials. Two worlds. in the background my thoughts turn to Kenneth Burke’s “scene-act ratio” – the scene contains the action to be performed there.

1962. Picasso’s Woman throwing a stone.

Intersting puzzle. Commentary on today’s identity politics.

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we have from Zizek’s Return To Plato As Materialist?

A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas.


We ned to nudge our thinking into .   terrains.

1953. school and prison

There are many good schools, many good teachers and many children learning and actually have a good time. But even the best schools a time feel like prison. I remember it from my own childhood and there are testimonies like Albert Schweitzer and Jean Pisget who wrote about their own difficult time with school and their yearning to escape. One of our local schools just got shut down because threatening language was discovered on the bathroom wall. It’s important to realize that even the best mannered and intended children learn a certain hostility to authority and its irrationalities through the process of going through the school system. Part of the awareness among children of the school – gun situation is that children are more tempted to express their hostility than they would in normal times. Over reacting will only make the problem worse if children see adults as being anxious, defensive and irrationally angry. Important to remember to that for the vast majority of children there is no outside that they are any longer allowed to vacate to. We do not have a child friendly, nor a society always thinking kindly toward parents nor teachers.

My own view is that putting more guns into the situation makes school feel like a bad western. Better is to have a society without guns so it feels more like a domestic comedy.

1946. The psychology of shooters.

The psychology of shooters. A shooting requires at least three things. a shooter, a victim, and a gun.

But a shooting takes place in a cultural context, in an atmosphere, a feeling for how things are. The question for young people forming their identity is who am I , and the crucial question is what do I move towards in society? Obviously we live in a time when there is very little political power  and for most young people economic power seems far away. So the locus of power in society now is in guns. Imagine the landscape, perhaps the county,  where you live. It is richly dotted with guns and each gun is a locus of potential power. As much in imagination as in physical reality but nevertheless fully real and felt by young people to be realizable.

So, yes, It takes a shooter, a gun, a victim, and an atmosphere.

The shooter has a young lifetime of alienation from the community of adults, parents, and friends.

Victims are easy. The world is filled with other kids and authorities.

Guns are always a problem and their presence is a magnet. My  view is that they should have far less presence within a society bordering on zero.


The atmosphere is a combination of parental success,  optimism about the future, integration into schools and peer groups and above all a sense of what worth life is about.

Churches used to be present in  most communities and or a constant if dull reminder of an orientation to life. We have not yet found a way to match that.  when we have a president and teenagers who share the psychology of winning is everything, weapons are cool, people are either winners or losers, we have nearly lost it.



1915. Population and economics

Provocation #112 Population

As we look for positive plausible scenarios for the future we need to be imaginative, compassionate and realistic. Economics can play a crucial role in creating an economy that is supportive. But when the history of our time is written a key question will be: why didn’t we deal with the obvious?


We each have excuses but they don’t add up to much.

We have many examples of the collapse of societies through population.

Economics does not go after the most interesting phenomena of which population is certainly one. Increase in population destabilizes all existing relationships, requiring room of some kind to be made for the newcomers. But increase in population is also a stabilizer – if your focus is on the need for constant growth.

THIS IS SO OBVIOUS! Yet way ignored as a systems problem requiring and not getting very serious thought. The problem of population is compelling and interesting – but maybe even more so for economists is the phenomena of the avoidance itself. Why?

Book note.
“Remarkable book about the evolution of property and how this shaped human society. Impossibly, wonderfully broad in scope.”

The book is Owning the Earth. The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. Posted in Twitter, by William Goetzman, who wrote the very terrific book Money Changes Everything. Matt Sware met him at Yale School of Management..