Hitchhiking Spain

Back in the Black Forest Hostel in Freiburg, I remember a young woman telling me that hitchhiking would be tougher in Spain. “No worries,” I said. “Spanish people love me.”

Then my  friend in Granada seconded the idea that hitchhiking Spain is difficult. “No worries,” I said. Etc. But when I hit the side of the road on the north side of Ciudad Real, looking toward Madrid, my spot at a traffic circle was good, but there I stood. Two hours. Four hours. Two cars did stop. The first was going in the opposite direction, into Ciudad Real, but kept trying to explain something. I could not understand his Spanish. Maybe he was saying that he was going to make some stops in Ciudad Real and then turn back toward Madrid. Maybe he was trying to sell me drugs. Who knows. We both gave up and he rumbled off toward the city center.

The second car was going my way but to a small village about 10 miles out. Taking any ride is an emotional boost, and I would have done it in Germany or the US. But I don’t know the ropes in Spain yet. And I had been warned by my two friends. The head won over the heart. Why go 10 miles out, gaining essentially nothing, and lose my spot, from which I could always walk 30 minutes to a train station? I stayed. The sun blazed like an Arizona sun. Except that the last time I hitchhiked Arizona I was in my 20s. Suffice it to say I am not in my 20s now. I walked the 30 minutes and took a train to Madrid.

Next try out, from Pamplona toward Barcelona, I avoided the main route through Zaragosa, a controlled-access toll road where I felt I could get stuck with no easy shoulders. I took the smaller highway, thinking that slow and easy is fine. Another traffic circle with a few options for drivers. An 18-wheeler stopped and brought me about a mile, but he was exactly right that the new spot, a service station with everyone going my way, was better.  Really, though, I think he wanted to practice his English. His dad had lived his whole life in very center of Pamplona, in the shadow of the cathedral.

In my new spot, I waited an hour or more. As usual, I bought a coffee and tried to chat up the staff. You want to have those guys on your side if possible.  Here, both workers were friendly. Cars pulled in and out occasionally. At least it wasn’t dead.

From the back of the parking lot, I was flagged over by another 18-wheeler. He had a load of ski lift equipment but space in the trailer for my backpack. It felt great to ride with 18-wheelers again. Back in the 1970s, there was a camaraderie between hippie hitchhikers and truckers that was life-affirming, these two groups with very different backgrounds and visions flowing together in a life on the road. Now, though, the bond is broken. Truckers in the US never pick up hitchhikers any more. Insurance companies have banned it and put cameras in the cabs. As usual, insurance companies drain the human element from everything they touch. Human relations are no more than financial scribbles on a balance sheet. When Marx said that under capitalism, human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things, I think of insurance companies.

My new trucker was definitely not practicing his English. He spoke some combination of Spanish and Portuguese. He said it was Spanish but I know enough Spanish to know better. He seemed to be saying that he was going to Jaca. Then we passed Jaca, and he seemed to say that he was going to Huesca. Then we passed Huesca and he took me into Lleida, stopping at a truck stop where he said we could get a huge buffet for 5 euros. And he was right. Just like the trashy, faux home-cooking, junk food buffets back home. Exactly what I needed before hiking into Lleida to find a dumpy place to stay.

So how hard is it to hitchhike in Spain? Inconclusive. Definitely harder that in Northern Europe. Definitely safer and less weird than in the U.S. But not easy. Pleasant enough, but not easy.

 Ciudad Real

Pamplona 

On the road

  Lleida 

Barcelona 

 

BookCoverImage    year-bfly-cover    

 

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Evil bastards

What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.

Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.

Social conditions

I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.

Metaphysical/religious

Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.

Psychoanalytic/Freudian

Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a  Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)

Existentialist

Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.

I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.

Bakunin’s Anarchy

Review of Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

Statism and Anarchy offers a collectivist anarchy, an anti-capitalist communal vision that emerges within the Marxist/socialist orbit but against Marx’s reliance on a statist transitional period. Bakunin sees an “anarchist social revolution” as “an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge new creative forms of social life.” This sounds a little like the 1960s Age of Aquarius, but Bakunin remains, like Marx, economics-centric and reliant on violent upheaval over pacifist incrementalism. He is still in the age of homo economicus, per my fine previous blog on the topic.

The attacks on Marx’s “statist” phase for its inherent contradictions ring true. The so called proletarian elite, “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” will be just like old elite statists. This is well-argued, borne out by history, and most coolly captured by The Who in the 1969 song, “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.”

But Bakunin seems to have his own contradictions to wrestle with. Unlike the Marxists on one side or capitalists on the other, Bakunin does not want to “thrust upon our own or any other people any scheme of social organization.” And yet he needs some kind of general superstructure. He even admits that “the principal evil which paralyzes the Russian people, and has up till now made a general uprising impossible, is the closed rural community, its isolation and disunity.” On the one hand, he seems in principle committed to total local autonomy, and yet without some larger superstructure, the local unit gets wiped out, as Bakunin himself complains in regard to experimental pacifist communes like New Icaria. As much as he reviles any stage of statist superstructure, it’s not clear to me that he has figured out a way around it, at least during some revolutionary transition phase, and then in perpetuity if his collectivist anarchy is not global and thereby free from external threats.

Now, 150 years after Marx and Bakunin, it might also seem like overthrowing a government is easy compared to dismantling the powerful multinational formations of capitalism. Autonomous anarchist collectives sound great, but how can they overcome these gigantic formations of wealth and power without aggregating themselves into something like a statist block with enough concentrated power to rattle those formations? The hippies perhaps struggled with this and lost. But might the grass-roots collectivist anarchy of the hippies, refueled by the decentralized energies of social media, come back again with greater force next time? May the Age of Aquarius be still rising?

 

Good anarchy and bad

Bad anarchy is like life in the state of nature described by 17th-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Good anarchy is the Age of Aquarius vision of the flower children, who were fed up with the convention-bound thinking that had brought us the world of war, machines, and straightjacket moralities. “Rules and regulations, who needs them?” sang hippie icon, Graham Nash, in 1970, with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.

The risk, presaged by The Beatles (“Revolution,” 1968) and The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971), is that you might expect one kind of anarchy but you can’t be sure you won’t get the other.

(For my academic friends, thus Bakunin’s charge against Marx redoubles back upon Bakunin.)

Piketty’s Capital

Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

So this is the book Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman lauds and billionaire apologists decry. No need for such drama, though. This book – a close reading of the historical trajectories of capitalism with special attention to things like growth and inequality – is no call to storm the walls of capitalism. Indeed it is a reformist attempt to save capitalism from its own excesses, to save it from the kind of sweeping revolution that Russell Brand heralds.

Of course, Piketty, unlike Brand, is a professional economist, more wonkish than visionary, and still working in the Adam Smith to Karl Marx tradition of homo economicus, which presents homo sapiens fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations (compare to the dramatic conclusion of my “Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius). But Piketty, with his line graphs and tables, his sorting of economic laws that are mathematically fixed from economic laws that are subject to political intervention, is like a hungry badger digging into the internal mechanics of today’s capitalism. At least he seems a good “inside game” player to liaise with our visionaries when the Aquarian revolution comes.

Indeed, in his appetite for detail, the hungry badger sometimes seems unsure of his audience. He wants to pitch to a general audience, which means high-level narrative instead of “showing your work,” but, always aware of the secondary (academic) audience, he gets bogged down for pages on disclaimers, caveats, apologies for methodological imprecision, etc., that really just bore the general reader. And although the stats and charts are great for the most part, here also he sometimes gets bogged down in the numbers. It reminds me a little of Darwin’s 200-page digression (or so it seemed) on the tail feathers of the rock finch in Origin of Species (a book that was otherwise quite compelling for the average reader).

What the wonkish Piketty can and does give us, however, is a layman’s way into one of the basic problems in the trajectory of capitalism: Since return on capital always outstrips growth (r > g), the tendency is toward greater inequality (the capital/income ratio increasingly favors capital). This inexorable feature of capitalism was temporarily obscured by the shocks of the 20th century (1914-1945 and a recovery period through the 1970s). This period was anomalous in two ways: (1) growth of 2-3% came to seem normal (Piketty’s centuries of data show that 1% is actually robust growth in long run); (2) those shocks and after effects reduced the role of capital/inherited wealth, so it seemed capitalism was on a “natural” track toward increasing meritocracy and diminishing importance of inherited wealth. Now that the shock waves are over, both trajectories have returned to normal – growth is coming down and will probably level out at about 1%, and the role of capital/inherited wealth is concurrently going back up. Some of Piketty’s points are debatable, but the overall argument is compelling and the urgency real.

So how do we check the underlying forces of capitalism now pushing toward a renewed importance for inherited wealth and increased inequality? State expropriation of private property has been tried and failed to deliver on its promises. National taxes on capital won’t work because today it is too easy for the wealthy to relocate resources. Only an annual global tax on capital will do the trick, according to Piketty, and that means greater financial transparency and greater cross-national political collaboration. So he may not see beyond the age of homo economicus, he may not see into a future where self-actualization is detached from purchasing power and from the age-old struggle for resources, but if he develops his thesis with the restraint of a reformer, these final recommendations reveal a little bit of the visionary idealist in Piketty after all.

Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

The Devil’s Aphorisms

These are selected re-posts of my Facebook status quotations, but some of you may recognize the title nod to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, so I’ll start with a quote from that fine work:

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul: for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age” (Blake)

“Break a rule when it doesn’t work” (Chicago Manual of Style)

“Who knows, the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac)

“Set your heart upon your work, but never on its reward” (Bhagavad-Gita)

“Christ is God externalized” (Karl Marx)

“Forge of blue metal, nights of still combats / my heart revolves like a crazy wheel” (Neruda)

“Where there is no echo … there is only silence” (Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves)

“The sea is like music; it has all the dreams of the soul within itself and sounds them over” (Jung’s letters)

“The lights of the impure, illusory six realms will shine: the soft white light of the gods, the soft red light of the jealous gods, the soft blue light of human beings, the soft yellow light of the hungry ghosts, and the soft smoky light of hell-beings. These six will shine together with the pure light-rays of the four wisdoms. At that moment do not grasp or be attracted to any of them, but stay relaxed in a state free from thought.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead)

“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself” (Baba Ram Dass)

When you look into your hand, you can see thousands of generations before you and thousands of generations after you … All our ancestors and all future generations are present in us. Seeing this, we will know what to do and what not to do. (Thich Nhat Hahn)

“There is no way to peace; peace is the way” (A. J. Muste)

“Religion is like a banana skin. And spirituality the banana itself. The problem with this era is that people have thrown away the banana and are holding on tightly to the banana skin” (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)

“When the average American senior is squeaking by on only $19,000, we shouldn’t be subsidizing millionaires’ yachts with $140,000 in tax breaks every year” (Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus Chairman Judy Chu)

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”
(Henry David Thoreau)