Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sorel, Best Sellers and Fascists

Long paragraphs on a difficult background, you betcha! So let's go. One of the problem areas for a person who writes is the idea of a best seller. The trouble is, and you can call it cynical if you want, best sellers are either brilliantly promoted flukes or they emerge from a detailed analysis of the demand in a market comprised of people who buy books and are written to satisfy that demand. Another way of looking at a best seller, is in terms of a "A Pat on The Back" a "Jolly Good Show Old Chap" and all the hoopla associated with "Success" a reward so temporal in its nature even The Saints might occasionally fall prey to, or victim of. Our own true hero has a misguided grandfather who is currently running in that direction, he's headed for the Vestry of Monnow, a judgment, which as it so happens occurs in a Lunatic Asylum, but that's another story which currently hinges on your writer of pulp's ability to grasp a character our hero is currently sharing a cell with, an Irishman who speaks Welsh.  But Georges Sorel did actually write a best seller, it was called "Reflections on Violence" and it was translated into many different languages which included English. Sorel's market for this book was the world of turmoil in the decade leading up to the First World War. And while Proudhon, of yesterday's ramblings, didn't like violence, he'd seen it, he got no adrenalin rush from it, it was a waste of resource and it was the antitheses of the sort of reasonable behavior one might expect from a fellow revolutionary, it was Sorel who suggested that much of the motivation behind what people did when they were upset, wanted to be inspired, or just woke up in the morning could be thought of as myth. Perhaps to explain it a little better, consider "The American Dream" "Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George" "We will have our Freedom" and put all that beside Hillary, the conqueror of Everest's and possibly the other Hillary's, incredibly insipid  "Because it was there." Sounds more like detention than a struggle worth getting excited about. Sorel essentially said that the myth of violence was useful, and here, for the queasy, worth considering the furthest possible ends of the continuum between Harmony and the End Times, the notion of "Mutually Assured Destruction," call it a myth if you want to, it hasn't yet happened, but it might. In a less extreme way, to change the arrangements and traditions of societies, the least powerful amongst us had to have muscle. One element of muscle was violence. And I can almost see Gandhi in tears as his weaponless peasants dreamed of spinning their own cotton while facing down the rifles of the British Soldiers. Call it irony. "The end of the world is easier to conceive of than the end of capital." A quote from a politician called Tom Watson.

Sorel worked hard to achieve the status of a Chief Public Works Engineer. He was awarded the Legion de Honneur. On his retirement, Sorel moved to near Paris, a city that's often in turmoil and he wrote books on things like Hydrology, Architecture, Physics, Secular Religion and Political History so he wasn't actually a man running around the streets with a knife in his teeth. Of his many books, "An Introduction to Modern Economics" and "Contribution to Secular Bible Study" didn't ring the bell for many, but his book "Reflections on Violence" rang that bell and so did Sorel's "Illusions of Progress" both written in 1908. In the 1970's you could pick up thumbed, secondhand paperback copies of both books, and if you had money that wasn't already pledged to the Public Bar you could buy them. One of Sorel's things was this, people who write stuff tend toward exploring ideas rather than actually wanting to have anything to do with them. They prefer to sit around in clubs smoking cigars well under the illusion that progress has been made, so time for another celebration with a Chablis. It's the more political people who raise the flag of the engineer, and Sorel's "Reflections of Violence" offered such people a contemplation on violence into which they could read what they wanted to. Some will argue that Sorel's thoughts justified violence by encouraging acts of violence that would serve to further the myth of violence which in turn would enhance the bargaining position of the less powerful, and this argument is all very well if you're shivering in the trench, terrified at the barricade or at the frontline. And in the hands of some, the myth of violence took on a life of it's own. It became rebirth, it was renewal, it was a forging a unity of will on an anvil, it was "Cry God for Harry let's achieve Nirvana by invading other countries," all of which found expression in the fascist movements of the Twentieth Century. But not for Sorel, Sorel's point can be understood from the thoughts of a German called Michels in a 1911 book called "The Iron Law of Oligarchies." Political parties no matter their origin, can't help but become oligarchies, and for Sorel it was through something like the Myth of Violence, or the Myth of the General Strike, something destructive, that the less powerful can keep their representatives in some kind of line, voting was almost an irrelevance. The thing about myths is when they're called threats they're not myths.  So it's tricky, but as the engineer Sorel liked to point out, science is an act of imagination, it's not the real thing.  "Abstractions to avoid the chaos of reality." Aristotle or Sorel, your choice to know the difference between pedants, realists, violence and the myth of violence, Ayn Rand and Proudhon. It's an interesting armchair area for us old farts who aren't yet empiricists.

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