“Look not to political or economic remedies for your salvation!”
Saturday, May 5, 2007
Michael Langevin and others asked if I had ever asked you to follow-up on the question of societies that had prevented hypertrophy of wealth.
All right, we will proceed to a few words on other social organizations. But you may find this less helpful than you may expect — for our priority is not that you change your societies, but that you change your being. Lay down certain threads of your being, and pick up others, and in effect you will be born again, and new people will call forth a new society as a sort of side effect. To try to change society first is an error of materialist thinking. Changing individuals and changing the society around them is a reciprocal process of continual readjustment, not a one way or straight line process. Nature works only in spirals, not in straight lines. How else could it be, given the influences on earth?
I always wondered why I explain things easier at length than in brief. It is a sort of inherited trait. 🙂
We, too, smile. You are learning to use the needle in two senses of the word. Very well, to proceed to the proper groove of the record.
First, I do not be surprised that what we will say you will find somewhat shocking, somewhat repellent. If it were a way of thinking that came naturally to your time, would you not be more likely to be different than you are? In other words, a new way of seeing things is either new or it is comfortable, but it is unlikely to be both. If the one, it is not likely to be the other.
We put it to you simply. If you want something to stay within bounds, you have to bound it by something. If you don’t want it to run out of bounds, you must restrict it. But restrictions are not only restrictions of maximums, as you may be tempted to think — necessarily they will be restrictions of minimums as well, though perhaps invisibly.
To put it into terms less abstract, we are talking about a class society or a tribal society, and America is neither. As usual, we must ask you to hear this as though it may be something new, and not merely pigeonhole it as “nothing but.” If you cram new thought into comfortable, familiar pigeonholes, nothing much new can present itself to you.
In a tribal society there are graduations of wealth as in any other. But the personal relation is so much stronger than in the larger, more complex societies that the effect is different.
For instance, Joseph [Smallwood]’s Indian family. A man who owned 20 ponies was rich. Another might have not even one. But the tribe — the family, you see, of which smaller families were a part — could and did intervene to prevent this from becoming a stratification. The owner of many horses, or of many beaded belts, or whatever, might be proud as an individual, yet he (or she) might also be laughed at for that pride, and in any event would not have power because of the wealth. He could not hire others to do his bidding, and slave away receiving little for their efforts. He could not buy preferment or establish himself and his sons as “a power in the land” so to speak. On a tribal level things remained too personal. It was direct self-government, so there were no representatives to be bought, or hired, or rented, or influenced. And in case of need the tribe could put it directly to an individual: Do this, or cease doing this, for the sake of the whole.
In a tribal society, you see, extremes of wealth did not arise because the stratifying effects of one individual’s good fortune or skill or whatever were counterbalanced by personal relationships, and the lack of agents to multiply the effects of such excess resources, and mainly something that you can’t see yet but that we will try to show after we look at the other extreme, the society of classes.
In Hank Wesselman’s books you will see a description of harmonious societies that are nonetheless firmly rooted in classes, the antithesis of what you have been taught that America is about. In Elizabethan England you will see another example, although the Spain of Phillip II is a better example, but not as well known to you.
Societies are not all stratified — as yours is — primarily by wealth. One alternative is to separate them by birth, with no movement between classes. If your father was a merchant, you cannot become a nobleman no matter how much money you make. If he was a warrior, you may not be a very good warrior, but that is your destiny. If a peasant, guess what your opportunities are going to be.
In all these cases there are provisions for some fluidity (though not necessarily seen as such). Clerics may come from any background, theoretically — but don’t think that once you have become a cleric anyone, including yourself, will ever forget the rank your parents hold or held!
You find that abhorrent and stifling but perhaps that is your lack of imagination as much as anything, and certainly it is your unconscious social conditioning and your unconscious assimilation of social assumptions (to say the same thing twice) that consciously you may disagree with. For instance, you leap to say, what a prison for those born into the wrong class! But that assumes that someone can be born into the wrong class. How would he do that? This in turn makes you uneasy because it seems to ratify all sorts of social injustice by saying “Well, God placed them in that sphere of society, that is their place in the social order.”
Of course it does! That is exactly what it does. And in your society you do exactly the same thing by a different route, who has how much money, regardless how s/he or his or her ancestors got it. All societies wind up saying, “this is how God set it up” or they say, “this is how mankind set it up and we have to change it because it is wrong” — but in the latter case no one who says that ever places themselves lower on the proposed order of things than in the existing order.
I am wandering here, and I’m not sure how much of the previous paragraph is perception and how much story. I’m going to take a break for a bit.
(10:45 a.m.) continuing.
You may have heard — what will seem ridiculous to you — of Elizabethan society, for instance, in which someone wearing a ruff wider that allowed for that station in life might have it publicly (and humiliatingly) clipped for him. A class-based society is firmly bounded and does not allow people to move upward very easily, and certainly not at their will, to the extent that it can help it. In a society — a feudal society, say — based upon hereditary casts, there is a security as well as a lack of opportunity.
Indeed, for one and all there is a security partially based on that lack of opportunity.
This is hard for your age to understand, thinking as it does that it is the last word in progress. What age ever thinks differently? Even if it looks backward to a past that was undoubtedly greater — as the medieval world looked back on the Roman Empire, say — still it says, “but we are better, in that we –” and then it fills in the blanks as best it can.
Your idea of your society, and how that society would look to the proverbial outside observer, the man from Mars, are two very different things. In fact one could argue the law of compensation: That which you have the least, you imagine that you have the most. That which in practice you value least, in theory you value most.
Respect for law? Respect for life? Equality under the law? Opportunity for all? Wealth, education, security, name it. The more you are told (and are led to tell yourself) that you have, in fact the less you really have in substance.
Who is cutting the ruff of instant millionaires building their monuments to themselves? What gangster fails to get power and even prestige once he is successful enough? What does it take to put a million dollars in jail, much less the electric chair? How representative is a government that cannot be influenced saved by fear or money? What equality of opportunity in a land where even free public education no longer exists except as a sort of Potemkin village?
You know all this. Is it the fault of a few crooked politicians? Of a political party? Of the selfishness of a social category? Or is it something far more fundamental?
A society that measures prestige and worth by one means — money — is going to have a very unstable and self-destructive pyramid.
You may go to Plato, whose descending scale you disliked but can now see was based on observation and not merely on aristocratic prejudice.
Dictatorship and back to monarchy.
You are well into the stage of plutocracy. What can money not buy in your society? We refer here not merely to America, which is the world’s mirror, but every country on earth to greater or lesser degree, modified by local circumstances. What can money not buy?
But there have been societies in which money could not buy intellectual prestige, or social preferment, or the ability to change rank. You may not like such societies — think of the minor German principalities of the 1600s, say — and you would not fit into them, but they had what you think you want — restraints on the power of money to buy whatever it wants.
Let us say it plainly. Political reform, economic reform, is not the path to any utopia. The reason it is utopia is because it does not exist and it cannot exist — it should not (we would add) exist.
Look again at Plato’s succession of states of social organization. Even if you could force society to stay at any one of these levels, which level is perfect? Which does not have — must have — the defects of its qualities?
Look not to political or economic remedies for your salvation!
Do you want to curtail wealth, or at least the stupidest, crudest flaunting of wealth? You can do it only by exerting social controls either personal (as in tribes) or in personal (as in caste societies). Are you willing to pay the price, and assuming that you are, are you able to bring this to be? Or is it a tilting at windmills that distract you from your real work?
Certainly we did not meet to imply that it is no one’s task to work to change the world’s political and economic structures. We ask only that you ask yourself, is it your work. Is it your work, or do you have other tasks that you are better fitted for? You will know what they are because their allure for you will be unmatched by any other.
A final word on the subject. If you will look at communist societies you will see an attempt to impersonally control society so that wealth is not to determine. It your day such an attempt had to degenerate into ruthless social control based upon police. The reason why had nothing to do with external hostile powers, or “a few bad apples” seizing control of the People’s State — it had to do with the attempt by a few to overcome the weight of the entire world’s movement. Try to set up a monarchy in an age of democracy, or a plutocracy in an age of aristocracy, etc. Some things cannot be done. You might as well try to move the orbit of the Earth. Any results you produce will be twisted by their conflict with the invisible laws governing the times. Hegel was not mistaken, nor was he lost in abstraction.