Saturday, February 04, 2017

links for the weekend, the anxieties of too many or too few babies and the persistence of apocalyptic imagination

Over at New York mag Laura June explains that the reason you'll never be as perfect a mom as a French mom is because France has the better nanny state.  It always takes a village to raise a child, apparently, and apparently one of the signs of modernity is that the village that it is thought it takes to raise a child on the part of some New York writers is formal infrastructure. 

It would appear last year marked a record low, lowest birth rates ever for females in the United States.

Beyond the social implications of this relative decline in baby production, it may be the best recent news for human health at a population level, as Earth is unsustainably full of humans. That’s tough to say without sounding “evil,” I’m told, but it’s a question of math. There is not enough space to house and feed everyone. Population growth has us on course for catastrophic famine and war that result from overpopulating a planet that is growing ever less habitable.

It's not really new that people able to write thoughts for posterity have regarded humans as too susceptible to breeding.  Ironically this sentiment goes back about a thousand years.

A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages
Walter Ullman
Penguin Books
first published 1965
 ISBN-10: 0140207783
ISBN-13: 978-0140207781

The continuator of his commentaries on the Politics, his [Thomas Aquinas'] pupil at Paris and later Bishop of Claremont, Peter of Auvergne, struck up quite radical naturalist chords, particularly in connexion with social and economic questions and problems connected with marriage. For instance, he held that, since the State had to be self-sufficient, it was imperative to limit the number of citizens, otherwise poverty would follow. Hence he advocated limitations in the size of families. Aristotle's suggestion of abortion was not endorsed, but in order to avoid over-population he suggested restrictions of procreation between the ages of 37 and 55 with men and 18 to 37 with women, because then fewer children would be born. Beyond these age groups there should not be sexual intercourse with a view to procreation, but simply for the sake of health or some other valid reason.

So people with advanced educations have been fretting about the inability of the state to provide for the welfare of citizens if they're all reproducing at peak fertility seasons for a long time.  The new variation of ecological catastrophe isn't even necessarily a new concern, it's a new variation an old concern, which was that human agricultural customs either couldn't keep up with human fertility or could damage the earth if it were deployed at a larger scale.

We live in an era in which the admonition to refrain from childbirth may not always be argued on the basis of global ecological health or the capacity of the state to provide.  We also live in an era in which the political and economic freedom of the individual can be argued as a reason women should have the option to not reproduce.

Lots of people didn't want to have children over the centuries and a lot of them also avoided having kids by not having sex.  The puzzle of Western civilization at this point is that it seems sex is presented as the most liberating thing possible for those who have negotiated the privilege of having it ... and yet authors ranging from Slate to The Atlantic and ... well ... the pattern might be self-evident at this point ... regard parenthood as one of the ultimate forms of bondage.

With so many Americans not having babies letting the immigrants in might seem like it would solve the labor problem pretty easily.  But the immigration process is (so I occasionally hear) pretty labrynthine and time-consuming.  The nanny states of Western Europe may seem ideal to envious Americans but those cultures have been around for millennia and have more of a history of being cultural monoliths than the United States can ever possibly hope to be.  Some of those nation states, in the Scandanavian region, have legendarily strict immigration requirements.  One fellow I used to know tried to expatriate to that region and was told in the clearest possible terms he'd never be allowed in. 

For those who have considered expatriation to Canada they may have had a chance to find out you need a sponsor and a way to demonstrate you can provide your share of financial contributions to the state.  Americans seem loathe to admit there's such a thing as an opportunity cost, or that there's a price tag to stuff.  Thus we don't just get guys talking about building walls whose price tags have not been assessed we also get gals proclaiming that other countries have better nanny states and that we should just implement that kind of program over here whether or not the national economy is necessarily solvent enough to get that to work for three to five generations. 

Sometimes it seems that if the global ecological crisis is as bad as people fear it is that the  most reasonable reaction would be a kind of revived birth-averse socially conservative Catholic approach.  Nobody has sex unless they're planning to have babies and they should only even do that if they know they can afford to. 

If we're at a record low for births in the United States it may be people have worked out that we can't afford to have those babies and are just voluntarily abstaining from reproduction.  It's not going to make the crisis of who will be earning the income that can be taxed for the social safety net of tomorrow going away.  For that matter even the most liberal welfare state has government workers.  The job of the government worker is going to be maximizing tax dollar expenditures.  Which is to say that even in the bluest of blue states the job of the social worker still includes an injunction to save as much money as possible when something doesn't need to be spent.  If you don't need to be on food stamps you can be found ineligible.  If the state thinks you don't "really" need to be given monetary aid for your condition or if the money just dries up they could cut you loose so that you can pay your own way.

In other words, as more and more Americans get elderly the brief scandal of the "death panel" stuff with health care reform was, on the right, presented as if it were a fundamental innovation.  But why would it be?  If your health care is paid for by the state the state can't avoid the question of whether it's worth it to keep you alive any more than you can avoid the question of what happens if they one day decide you're not worth keeping alive?  This has been one of the reasons I can't regard either capitalism or socialism as different in contemporary technocratic societies.  People must be treated as commodities because that's ultimately how these systems have to work. 

Someone at The Baffler could say it's easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism
Jessa Crispin quotes a few people and then writes:
In other words, giving a voice to the impossible, the impractical, and the fantastical makes it all the more possible. Aiming high, rather than resigning yourself to what is practical and reasonable, is the important thing. In Greek mythology, Ouranos was the sky god, the god of ideas, the god of all that was possible. His son was Kronos, the god of time, the god of limits. Kronos castrated Ouranos, because that is what reality does to potential: it removes some of its power. Ouranos’s testicles were thrown into the sea, the realm of Poseidon, the realm of the imagination, and from that interaction was birthed Aphrodite, the goddess of art, beauty, and love.

In that sense there isn't really a secular left if by secular we mean a left which isn't informed by historicism.  Materialistic historicism is ultimately a pseudo-secularized apocalyptic idiom wrested from Jewish or Christian apocalyptic idioms and rendered "scientific" by means of economic and social theories.  But it is still ultimately a religious impulse by dint of being utopian (or dystopian).

If this weren't an article in The Baffler that sentiment could have come from a Word-faith teacher or a Joel Osteen or a Norman Vincent Peale.  Or another variant, Mark Driscoll said a year or so back that you have to dream so big that if God doesn't bring about the realization of the dream then the dream really is impossible.  It's like we've got Americans on the left and right of everything who feel like dreaming big impossible dreams regardless of whether or not we can pay the price tag for it because someone else is going to magically come through and pay for it all is the American way across the political and religious spectrum in the early 21st century. 

Americans may find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the United States.  Apocalyptic imagination has always had dystopian and utopian strains.  Hell and Heaven.  The trouble with the utopian strains in Western technocratic societies is that they tend to be inspired by fears of dystopian futures or presents and the history of Europe over the last century or two has suggested that if you move far enough left or right anti-Semitism is going to rear its ugly head in both directions. 

The left seems to have been riven in the last fifty years with two concerns.  One concern is that Western culture has not lived up to its promise of equality and opportunity for all. Another concern is that Western culture so endangers the global ecosphere and is so foundationally predicated on a fiscal system that is abusive and fraudulent that the system shouldn't exist.  The trouble is that this seems, whether within a left perspective or from a right reaction, like an insoluable problem.  If the economic engines that heretofore have generated the "wealth" that can be used to equalize outcomes or opportunities ravages the global biosphere then the freedoms the left would like all to have are immoral to reach for.  As the right has spent decades wringing its hands over, just because rights for all are asserted doesn't mean the state has to pay for those rights to be available.  Old line conservatives might try to roll out the distinction between natural and civil rights but we may live in an era where any residual, let alone explicit, appeal to natural rights deriving from natural law will be laughed out of the room.

In the age of Trump, however, the paradox is that the strong centralized state that many on the left regard as necessary for a just society is the apotheosis of evil if the wrong guys have control of that state apparatus. 


Cal P said...

2 Thoughts:

1) Having had a kid recently, I had a grumbling followed by a sinister thought. We, not having had great health insurance, have struggled over the hospital bills for having a kid. Thousands of dollars. I thought to myself, from a basic population perspective, shouldn't the State want to invest in me having kids? If the US is having a demographic crisis, wouldn't it want to institute something like Russia's National Family Day or something? Tax breaks hardly do it. People complain having kids is too expensive. But then I thought, maybe the system isn't broken, but it's a kind of social engineering. As the US continues to export and mechanize menial and manual forms of labor, maybe it's trying to create a population restriction. In this, the US can become, by design, a nation of wealthy and export poverty globally. This would be the masterful crowning of what Phillip Bobbitt has called the market-state. We can literally live by migration, but it becomes a migration of the profitable and a simultaneous migration of the menial. We can have the extremely wealthy and a class of servants, eradicating, more and more, middling tiers, or at least suspending servitude in a lower-middle, tolerable but scraping, sort of stasis. Everything else can be elsewhere or a machine. This is more feverish nightmare than actuality, at least as it is now, but it's not unreasonable.

2) I don't think you quite understand socialism, conceptually. It doesn't equate to technocratism, even though there are forms of socialism that are exactly that. The question of death-panels is a totally different phenomenon, but one that is technocratic. Just look at how we think about the question of death, medically and legally. When is someone dead? Is it breathing? Heart-rate? Right now it's a condition of the brain, but if we can artificially sustain that, what then? But the whole question, as you might have noticed, has to do with technical-legal questions. Some people advocate medical legislation to tell us when someone is dead or alive to remove ambiguity. So yes, whether it's a corporation or an elected/bureaucratic government panel, it will be technocratic. I think this form of socialism is merely a flip side of Capitalism, trying to move the same conceptual framework, but readjust users and purpose. But this is a mistake. That's why I think it's really something that we can't imagine the end of Capitalism, but we can the end of the world. The most some Socialist thinkers can muster up is something as pathetic as a global tax (2-4%) to redistribute wealth. Without fits of fantasy, it's an issue most Christians ought to take to heart as we consider our own work and actions. But many consider Capitalism as merely something to be restrained instead of jettisoned. I mean, where are the defenders of Feudalism as just the way of the world or something to be merely restrained? The question of whether we can own people is mostly settled, shouldn't we ask if we can own people's work or God's earth? This is one of my soap-boxes :)


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

When you wrote, "We can have the extremely wealthy and a class of servants, eradicating, more and more, middling tiers, or at least suspending servitude in a lower-middle, tolerable but scraping, sort of stasis. Everything else can be elsewhere or a machine. This is more feverish nightmare than actuality, at least as it is now, but it's not unreasonable."

it got me wondering ... are you SURE We don't already have this? Sometimes it feels like the Seattle area's been pretty much what you describe for a few years now!

For 2) possibly true that I don't get socialism conceptually, so I might say that given how I understand our currency system, I'm not sure socialism and capitalism are any different if 1) we have a currency system that's a fiat system in which we 2) have fractional reserve banking 3) and manipulated interest rates. It seems that if our economy is working on that basis then it's working on the basis of information manipulation, assuming that we have what has been called an information economy. It's not just that information has become the product, it's that the majority of the "money" being made is not necessarily hard currency or legal tender but information "about" the money that's being made.

Sometimes it seems that if the United States tried to actually translate the official numbers of its economy into currency we'd find out how irrevocably bankrupt we've been for generations.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

My doubt about the redistribution of wealth advocated by the left is whether or not it's even wealth. While I'm not sure I buy the libertarian approach because I consider the libertarian view to espouse a view of humanity I consider delusional (I admit I'm a dour Calvinist) the critique of fiat currency seems like it has something to it. But I would say that when my anarcho-capitalist neighbor says fiat currency is theft he's wrong, if it's a criminal something that something would be fraud. When I see that people on the old left and old right are starting to agree that 1) the U.S. campaign of military interventionism has bankrupted us morally and financially and 2) the tech and finance sectors have screwed over more traditional economies it would seem that the paleo left and right seem to have some consensus that the neo-liberal/neo-conservative consensus of the last twenty years has been a mess. The odds that the Old Left and Old Right will ever work together to address whatever the neo-liberal/neo-conservative consensus has been seem remote. There's too much bad blood and water under the bridge from the Cold War era for that kind of alternative alliance to take shape.

I don't think there will ever be a collective ownership of the means of production. I don't think it's ever happened and I don't think it ever will. We can see a regime change in which oligarchy seizes control of the means of production but there will never be a collective ownership of whatever the means of production is.

But that's perhaps too Western an approach. The history of China, for instance, suggests that an oligarchy that effectively owns the resources can change ideologies depending on which ideologues have the most power but that the ruling castes don't really have to change that much in terms of who has that role. My brother was telling me about that last year, that the names of the major families running things in China didn't change so much as that they switched from the older ideological currents to the newer ones while basically retaining formal and informal influence.

That said, I'm ambivalent at best about the system crashing because the sheer number of elderly and disabled people who literally can't keep on living without this system as-it-is surviving makes the dreams of anarchists seem not merely delusional but genocideally delusional. Not that you're an anarchist, Cal, but I met some anarchists living here in the Emerald City. I'm sympathetic to their concerns about state coercion but ... it's really, really easy for white guys with no significant disabilities to keep them from participating in the labor market to operate under the delusion that we could somehow abolish the state and that people would just start being nice to each other.

Cal P said...

1) Maybe Seattle is the beginning of a new era, ground-zero of an apocalypse! I'm being silly, but that's sad if it's true. Perhaps the NorthWest is most open to being an experiment for what could lie ahead.

2) Yeah, the current technocratic state of things, coupled with global finance and a fiat currency economic policy make things odd and complicated. Certainly what stands as "Socialism" here and elsewhere are basically reformist movements. They want to put some good people at the top and redirect the strategies at play. Bernie Sanders is one of these. Take the American Leviathan and point it elsewhere. Reduce or reorganize military spending so we can give free college and free health care. While I'd certainly not be opposed to redirecting the Monster's energies, it's no victory.

Yes, in China, Mao's victory depended on winning over the Old Guard to his camp away from Chang Kai Chek's Nationalist and republican movement. But Imperial China was use to having a change of staff and operators. This is, fundamentally, the Mandate of Heaven ideal and is a brilliant piece of theo-political doctrine, allowing for the possibility of violent political changes. The result is not a fundamental change, exactly (though it seems Mao tried that), but turning the Dragon for this or that purpose. In this way, Chinese Communism and Sanders' Socialism are basically reform movements of Capitalism, but Capitalism nonetheless. In this definition, Socialism is a subset of Capitalism, even if it's not laize-faire or Keynesian.

I'm maybe semi(pseudo)-Anarchic, but I am definitely not optimistic. Theologically, I'm in a place where I think Eastern Orthodoxy and Puritans have a lot to say to one another. So I guess I might be construed as "dour Calvinist", but maybe for a different set of reasons. I do think it's possible that one day people might not own the means of production, in the same way slavery is not conceptually possible. It might become a state where it must hide in the shadows and by another name than actualize tout court. I see Sin as a progressive phenomenon, something that gets worse until it hits critical mass and God's judgement manifests. I think Capitalism is reaching that point. Yes, people depend on this system to live, but this is where the social conservatism comes out in my sense of activism, seeing the values of families, family(gender) roles, etc.

This is not so dissimilar from Dreher's Benedict Option, but I'm completely opposed to his reasons and goals. This was a lot so I'll stop here. I think you're right to say the old Right and old Left have a lot more in common nowadays, at least in seeing the horrors of the present. But this is not enough, and why it's important to reckon with the fact that the future is a haze. We can't see the end of Capitalism, just its reform. Some people are ok wanting to work from there, but I'm not.