Capitalism and the Crisis of Nature: Barbaric Heart

At one end there is the miracle of digital technology (are we really supposed to believe that hundreds of hours of music can fit on a device the size of a cigarette pack?). This digital world gets tinier and more powerful every year, and it is substantially the product of capitalist ingenuity. I have to admire it even if, as a person who has spent his life among books, I mostly fear and dislike it. At the other end, there is the continental roaming of shoppers among millions of products that is as vast, in its own way, as the primordial movement of animal herds stretching from horizon to horizon on the Serengeti. Imagine a satellite image illuminating all the activity at shopping malls in the United States on a typical American Saturday afternoon. From a vantage in space, it would look like North America was flowing and glowing with strange life. If you could for a moment exclude the other consequences of this activity (environmental, social, military), you might be tempted to call this vision beautiful. (As in the ambiguous shots of Los Angeles freeways in the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The slow, winding flow of headlights comes to look like a natural phenomenon, like watching the northern lights.)

To say that there is something barbaric at work in these accomplishments is to say that there is also something admirable about the Barbaric Heart itself. The Barbaric Heart is not the opposite of the civilized. In fact, the Barbaric Heart is civilized, for all the good that does it, and has always happily clad itself in the decorous togas of Rome (as the Ostrogoth King Theodoric did), the pinstripes of Wall Street, and the comfy suburbanity of L. L. Bean. The Barbaric Heart has always wanted to look nice even when it didn’t (consider the leisure suit). The barbaric is admirable for its sheer strength, its daring, its energy, and its willingness to take risks. It is taller than we are. It is prouder in the way that a beautiful animal is proud. It is, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, a “blonde beast.” (He mostly thought that was a good thing, or at least better than being a slave.)

Unhappily, beyond its strength and pride and willingness to take on difficult tasks, there is something dangerous to itself and others in the Barbaric Heart. The Barbaric Heart is a great and energetic actor, but it is no better at questioning itself about the meaning of its actions than capitalism is at asking why the unlimited growth of the Gross Domestic Product is good. Capitalism does not ask, “What’s the economy for?” Capitalism merely asks it to grow. (It’s as if the only alternative to “growth” was “recession,” and no one is allowed to be for that.) Nonetheless, questions are in order. The Greek that opens the Gospel according to John reads, “In the beginning was Logos.” What is the logos (the spirit, the logic) of the Barbaric Heart? In short, in what name does it act?

The natural mode of reasoning for the Barbaric Heart is simple enough to describe. It was the logic not only of the ancient northern hordes, clothed in animal skins, but of the Roman Empire and the Western civilization that followed as well. (That must be our first deconstructive insight: the barbarian is not an “other” to be driven away in the name of civilized virtue.) For the Romans, virtue simply meant success, usually military success. Valor. That was the heart of Romanitas. For the Roman forces under Scipio Aemilianus at the end of the Third Punic War against Carthage, the routine was well understood: half of the time would be devoted to violence, to killing every human and dog and cat that crossed their path, and half the time would be given to plunder, to the transfer of every valuable material thing back to Rome, especially gold and silver things. Roman violence was above all orderly. As a consequence, as Polybius wrote, Rome “billowed in booty.”

This is the barbaric calculation: if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. In short order the Barbaric Heart is led to conclude that in fact prosperity is dependent on violence. Therefore, you should be good at violence, for your own sake and the sake of your country. That was Roman virtu. Which is a way of saying that the barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do. Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

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