I’ve been thinking about something lately that’s made me reconsider my level of commitment to Schedule 7 painkillers: the global economy is exhibiting the very worst symptoms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, how did we get here and where might we go? After not a few afternoons slamming my head into a mirror like a whiskey-soaked budgerigar I had an idea. It all starts with WB Yeats…
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats 1919
Yeats was an Irish eccentric with a penchant for Indian Magic and turning a fine phrase. During that nasty little cavalry-vs-machine-gun-bust-up-in-France, a 51-year-old Yeats was not fighting but madly in love with a woman addicted to chloroform. Of course. He proposed to her; she said no. A few months later he popped the question to her daughter. She wasn’t addicted to chloroform. She was 21 and she also said no. He was a loon, to be sure, but you could say there was a certain method to his madness. He wrote the poem at 54 and at 58 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It appears some people took him seriously despite the penchant for lovers either exceedingly young or seemingly dead.
All I need us to look at for this particular lark is what Yeats thought of the word ‘gyre’. In essence it’s an endless spiral outwards. Yeats saw this vuvuzela-shape as a brilliant visual aid for a theory of history and metaphysics that was given to him through
the spirit world a dangerous postcoital chloroform mishap his Ancestors, which he describes in a book called ‘A Vision’. Duh. Basically, once a trend starts (the lip piece of our vuvuzela) it tends to grow into a meme; thence a zeitgeist; which eventually turns into the feral B flat we know and love to hate. At that exact moment, in the face of such massive trumpeting excesses, the polar opposite ideal will be born and become the lip piece of the next vuvzela, the next trend. Human history is defined by reaction, not action. In 1921 Yeats believed the world was on the precipice of an apocalyptic moment, as history reached the end of the outer gyre and began moving along the inner. He was wrong. I sit here 90 years later feeling much the same way and I get the distinct impression that I’m wrong too. Aluta Continua. Life, and the struggle, will go on.
An example from America: After the great depression of 1929, people were understandably bummed, broke and tired. They moved away from the ‘wild party’ paradigm of the Roaring 20’s with the fantastical modernist conviction that if they could just calm down and do everything the ‘right’ way, it would all turn out fine. They tried to get their kids to act ‘right’. So the repressed children of the late 40’s and early 50’s gave rise to the rebellious Hippies of the late 60’s and early 70’s who were the direct cause of 80’s and 90’s yuppies and corporate greed.
The problem of course is that you can react negatively to the current trend in a number of ways. Not everybody who hated hippies turned to disco and Wall Street, some turned to Rock which churned out grunge-tards that led from Goths to Hipsters in response. Instead of one vuvuzela spawning only one other along a two-dimensional plane, you get hundreds in all directions and it makes thinking about them all at the same time very difficult to do without bleeding from the nose or foaming at the mouth.
A really valuable gyre system, then, would have two polar opposites that are so diametrically opposed that even in three dimensions the model demands only two vuvuzelas, one leading inexorably to the other, moving along the same axis.
And so, finally, our topic: Are you part of a Tribe or are you a Barbarian?
In the cut and thrust of early human history, it became clear to us that by working together we could achieve more. If we stayed together when we were attacked, we could fight together. If we hunted together we could take down larger game. If we harvested together we could gather a larger crop. The decision to go with safety in numbers meant you were secure, but it also meant there were a hell of a lot of you. Once we began to gather in groups around a communal fire, the tribe was born. Who would sleep where and with whom? Who would eat first and what cut? Who would watch the fire and who would keep guard while the others slept? And so it was that a system of privilege came into being: some people would do stuff they’d rather not but the whole tribe was better off for it. Maybe they took turns, maybe they didn’t. The point is, in a Tribe you work for the good of the whole. the strongest taboos are selfishness, laziness and greed because any of these displayed by an individual or group would negatively affect the tribe as a whole.
The collection of so many people into one area meant that there really was no need for everyone to go down to the river and collect their water for the day. One or two people could be entrusted with the task of maintaining a water supply for the whole tribe. In the same way not everybody had to go hunting; not everybody had to go looking for fruits and roots; and not everybody had to know how to make weapons or clothes or baskets or bowls. This led to the division and specialisation of labour. “Here, take these spears I made they’re really nice. I’ll stay here and make more spears, while you hunt. Just give me some meat when you come back and I’ll give you more spears.” Freedom from the rigours of individual survival gave rise to free time, and with it art, religion, storytelling and, worst of all, politics. The thought ‘with so many people involved, surely someone should be figuring out how we should organise ourselves to be better protected and better prepared for the future?’ gave rise to the Administrator/Priest caste. While they might have been responsible for the Pyramids of North Africa and South America, the Great Wall, and the apartments at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, they built it each one of them by breaking the backs of sociopolitical slaves. They’re not nice people and they found a way to make whatever’s ‘good for the tribe’ good for them for so long that they now think they are the tribe and honestly believe it’s in everybody’s best interests that those with influence have the nicest things.
Seeing that the Administrators were obviously getting a better deal, some of the stronger members of the tribe decided that they didn’t like doing all the hunting and guarding and killing without gaining any influence or accumulating any wealth. They were they strongest, why should they share what they caught? You can possess only what you can physically control and no more. These were the Barbarians, and they split from the tribe just before they moved from villages to citadels. Mainly because with hordes of barbarians around we started gathering into ever larger groups for protection, but that’s another story.
Barbarians aren’t big fans of civilisation. Civilisation provides amenities and comfort and comfort makes you weak. A barbarian doesn’t follow a chief because he is the son of a former chief. A barbarian follows a leader he’s fairly certain could fuck him up in a fight. You follow the strong and your honour is measured by your strength. The only taboo in a Barbarian society is weakness of the body and the mind. To surrender or to put yourself willingly beneath another’s power is the epitome of weakness and for this reason the Barbarians hated the tribes: hordes of emaciated talkers, thinking away the hours and scratching figures into the dirt or onto paper. “What for? Don’t think, TRAIN. Get stronger and one day you will be the strongest so you will be calling the shots then think.”
I reckon Tribalism and Barbarism make a good gyre model. The Barbarians view selfishness as pride and greed as status – he who has more got more because he is strong. It’s anathema to the Tribe’s sharing is caring vibe and the two systems are natural precursors to the other. Think about it: when everybody’s getting the same but you think you’re better you want to take more like a barbarian. But if everybody is taking what they want and that means the majority of people get very little we cry out for the egalitarian tribe. Such is the whimsy of the human spirit.
Of course it’s more complicated than that, but the next time you take a look at human history, try to decide whether the empire in question was tribal or barbaric or a tribe of barbarians? It’s a lot of fun.
So what does this have to do with the global economy?
Well, I’d argue that we’ve been overrun by Vandals and Visigoths in three-piece suits. You remember the old “he who has more got more because he is strong” barbarian logic? It has a corollary: he who has more is strong. That’s how we fucked ourselves. We let the barbarians win the battle in our minds and greed, selfishness and laziness run rampant. There are so many narcissistic people out there that they are actually debating whether Narcissism can still be classified as a mental disorder. We are that self-aware, that intrinsically screwed. And it’s all because the tribe thought it would be a good idea to teach the barbarians to read and give them a calculator.
Capitalism might not have started out as a Barbarian trend, but it grew into one. We follow the strong stocks now, the rich men themselves kept in line by the weight of their conceit. We pillage and call it profit. Ask the Indian kid who works for Nike whether he thinks his boss is a Barbarian. Come to think of it, how do you feel about his boss’s boss?
The problem with the barbarian ‘rape and pillage’ model is that you need a tribe to rape and pillage from. Or at least someone else. Once you’ve burned down the library of Rome it doesn’t just pop back into existence a few years later. Mostly because you killed all the authors you could find while you were at it. You steal the corn, fine. Steal the corn and burn down the farm and pretty soon we’re all screwed. Once you’ve taken all the gold out the ground there is no more.
Finite resources make no sense to a barbarian. They think there’s always more because barbarians always need more. They must grow constantly in honour and power or somebody else might overtake them. It’s unsustainable and they will not change.
So what’s the solution? Where’s the lip-piece of the vuvzela for our next meme that’ll get us out of this mess and into a whole new one? I don’t know. But I do know that it’ll be tribal and the core of that is the obliteration of Selfishness, Laziness and Greed. Let’s start with ourselves and then demand it of our loved ones and our leaders.
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