Thursday, November 12, 2009

Laura Flanders' Armistice Metaphor

As I continue to read each piece of economic news as if it were a dispatch from the front lines of the War Against the Poor, whose objective seems to be the banishment of those below the poverty line from the virtual world of financial practices in which "real world" concepts of value need not interfere with articles of faith based on mathematical models, I took some comfort in seeing that Laura Flanders used The Notion blog on the Web site for The Nation to pursue this metaphor in her own way. Her post this morning was entitled "No Armistice In War on Poor;" and it was clear that she was using Armistice Day as a point of departure. Here is her opening paragraph:
Armistice Day reminds us that when wars end, the winners and losers are supposed to make peace. For the first time, in 2009, leaders of World War II enemies, Germany and France, commemorated the date together as a sign of new mutual respect. But this week also marked the ten-year anniversary of a different kind of war -- a war on Americans' assets and the poor. Ten years later, while the winners and losers are obvious, there's no armistice in sight.
Unfortunately, this concept of armistice, at least as Flanders has conceived it, is a relatively recent one. Peace was not made with the "losers" of the Trojan War. Those who were not slaughtered were enslaved, and we have Euripides to remind of the full extent of humiliation associated with that slavery. While the motivation for war may have been a matter of controlling resources, the "winners" of that control maintained it through the strongest exercise of domination. Winning was not the only thing; one also had to keep a secure hold on one's victory.

This particular view of the nature of war is far from outmoded, so Flanders will not find an armistice in the War Against the Poor because there is no need for one. As her post observes, after the initial setbacks of the economic crisis, the rich are regaining control of their resources, particularly the virtual ones through which they maintain their power. It is, as Flanders observes, "obvious" that they are the winners; and their domination is so secure that there is no need for armistice. Still, the question remains as to why this victory was so important. Was the War Against the Poor nothing more than, as I put is a little over a year ago, "a fight to 'control all the marbles?'"

One theme I have considered since I first invoked the war metaphor is that, as was the case in the Trojan War, this was a matter of domination insured through enslavement. The technology through which man could control nature was now engaged to enable man to control his fellow man. This then brings us back to yesterday's unpleasant theme and its relation to Euripides' account of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Control is not enough; control must be exercised through humiliation. Not only must the "losers" be dominated; but also they must be (in yesterday's language) ravaged to make sure they are "kept in their place." Victory is not only about control but also about the pornographic thrills that can come with the exercise of that control.

The irony is that, back in the eighteenth century, the emergence of capitalism was tightly coupled with the origins of humanistic thinking. As Arthur Loesser put it in his social history, Men, Women and Pianos, "a wealthy, educated, public-spirited cotton manufacturer could rightfully tell himself that he was a better man than the gracefully mannered ne’er-do-well son of an impoverished baron." Nobility could no longer control by rank when manufacturers and merchants controlled resources that the nobles needed. This spirit of humanism culminated in the words of Friedrich Schiller's "An die Freude" in 1785 (later set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven) which, as its Wikipedia entry put it, celebrated "the ideal of unity and brotherhood of all mankind."

It took less than a century for that ideal to lapse into a hollow platitude, but when did the rich discover that the poor could be viewed as a source of pornographic titillation? This is a question that demands further research. I suspect that Charles Dickens was one of the first to bring attention to this dark side of wealth and power, and it is clear that his influences are still with us. Could it be that he started the trend because he was able to apply his literary skills to his own life experiences? Where does that now leave us as readers and observers? Shall we continue to let Arthur Rimbaud's "savage parade" of pornographic indulgences pass us by; or have we the will to recover that spirit of humanism that once tried to heal the social divisions of the eighteenth century?

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