Anarchistic Philosophical Appetizers, Research Time, 03/07/2014

I’ve missed some days of philosophical reading while I began looking for new steady employment, as my freelance editing gig doesn’t seem to be paying the dividends necessary for my lifestyle (rent, food, internet access, occasionally being able to do things like visit Toronto or buy a book). But I did gather some news regarding the Hobby Lobby decision, which already seems to have completely wrecked any attempt in the Affordable Care Act to provide anything approaching a universal subsidy for any contraceptive services. 

The rights of working people have fallen victim to the
purveyors of . . . macramé.
The legal landscape of the United States now seems to be defined by a series of Supreme Court rulings that, in following through on the conception of corporations as legal persons (that personhood most often expressed in their owners), is on track to completely disenfranchise working people of most of their autonomy. The Court seems, at least to me, to be on track to declaring any attempt of workers to establish independence from the demands of their employers in any aspect of their lives, as illegitimate impositions on the freedom of corporate persons. 

The Hobby Lobby decision treats the rights of employers not to have their religious beliefs infringed as paramount over the right of employees to maintain their autonomy in areas of their lives having nothing to do with the smooth functional operation of the company itself. In light of the very strange historical path the United States seems to be on, I have cracked open the singularly strange Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin, a book that is, in large part, a historical narrative of the evolution of human society from the social forms of insects and wild animals through to the humanity that was modern to the author in the late 19th century.

At my current point in the book, Kropotkin has just begun his account of the nature of tradesmen’s guilds in the medieval cities of Europe, covering a period from the 800s to about the 1500s. You can expect more thoughts on where this historical narrative ultimately goes as I get there. Today, I just want to focus on two ideas.

Idea 1. I find it quite intriguing how Kropotkin deals with the boundary between pre-historic and civilizational humanity: he acts as if it doesn’t exist. And it doesn’t. It’s easy for us to see the humanity of urban civilization as having made a decisive break from the humanity that was more like the animals. It’s why we distinguish the cavemen from the humans who lived under Hammurabi’s Code. It’s why we even have the word ‘pre-historic’ to describe these ancient people. 

Archaeology of the indigenous Americas and other very ancient settlements and movements of the human race has helped disavow people of this idea. If you get a chance to see Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you definitely should, because it humanizes humans that are generally thought of as less than human. There is a continuous flow of time and development throughout all life on Earth. We break up our species and our planet’s history into stages because we find such segregated eras easier to analyze and understand. But their ability to describe adequately the flux of history is limited.

Idea 2. Getting back to my rage about the Hobby Lobby decision (which is one more reason why I am no longer interested in the possibilities of moving to the United States), I wonder what a thinker like Kropotkin would make of this madness. His history of human civilization in Mutual Aid is one of growing tensions of the forces that accumulate wealth and power in an increasingly corrupted cabal with the drive in humanity of equality before the laws and judgment of our fellows. 

Peasants were much more sophisticated than our modern
stereotypes usually depict.
This is how, as I read yesterday evening, he understands the growth of the medieval cities. The village communities of post-Roman Europe practiced common agriculture, consensual decision making, and settled conflicts by independent community custom. Feudal lords arose when commerce among communities increased, and conflicts arose with no common context of custom for arbitrators to apply. 

The notable families of a confederated region accumulated power through their legal capacities and wealth through fines and taxes. When these lords were unable to defend their villages against invasions from such forces as the Normans, Arabs, and Hungarians, the most prosperous communities built their own walls and eventually developed into legendary cities like Florence and Ghent. 

The American political and legal system is now in another period of flux, when the gap in power between richest and poorest is growing and legal institutions only seem to be protecting those already so powerful that they need no real protection. I went to sleep last night wondering how a nuanced and original thinker like Kropotkin would understand our strange modern era, which is nonetheless continuous with the strange eras of our past. 

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