The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I devoured Pynchon’s 760-page epic and absorbed his dichotomy between paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is the sense that everything is connected, has meaning, and is part of some larger pattern. Anti-paranoia is the sense that nothing is connected to anything, has no meaning, and is patternless. That basic duality has informed everything from my psychedelic drug experiences to my study of everything—history, politics, economics, society, spirituality.

As a lover of history who fancies myself an amateur historian, I consider history the best tool to study those other subjects. History is not just the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle). There is some level of pattern to be found in history. Civilizations, empires and nations rise and fall. War is a persistent pastime for humans. “Who benefits?” (cui bono) is always a good question to ask of any set of historical evidence or events. But to argue that “history repeats itself,” or that history demonstrates an ever-ascending line of progress, or that it’s possible to draw “universal truths” from comparing similar historical events that occurred at different times, in different places, under different socio-economic circumstances, to different groups of people, is fallacious.

Then there are the long-term, nearly permanent or slowly evolving historical structures mapped out by Karl Marx as modes of production and by Fernand Braudel as the longue durée. I tend to view these analyses as descriptive rather than prescriptive; as describing what happened rather than what must happen. One of these structures is the nation-state. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer argued that the modern nation-state is a historical structure of relatively recent origins, a product of conquest. The feudal state based on landed territorial empires was politically amalgamated with the maritime state based on coastal commercial city-states.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory describes a more complex development for the nation-state. As integrated territories and homogenous populations were achieved over centuries independent states and economies were consolidated. Centralized governments with extensive bureaucracies and large mercenary armies were attained by ruling elites—the local bourgeoisie. These nation-states regulated the domestic economy and controlled international commerce in order to extract surpluses, eventually industrializing their economies and democratizing their societies.

The Left has targeted the nation-state for complete destruction since the First International, with the anarchist project to abolish the state and the Marxist project to abolish the nation. Lenin put up obstacles to abolishing the nation-state by championing the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination and insisting that the communist withering away of the state be preceded by a strengthening of state power under socialism. Marxism-Leninism has subsequently devolved into the dictatorship of the vanguard party and socialist struggles for national liberation, completely reversing the First International’s liberatory intent.

Given this betrayal, my propensity is always to look for Leftist non-state and non-national alternatives. Hence me calling myself an anti-state communist, and my interest in the EZLN in Chiapas and the YPG/SDF in Rojava. And it’s why I’ve studied how dispersed peoples like the Jews have managed to survive for millennia partially or entirely without a national state. The Jewish diaspora has existed since the Babylonian Exile in 597 bce and was complemented by influential cultural centers in Babylon, Palestine, Spain and Poland. This core/periphery historical dynamic was not merely central to Jewish survival but it’s also partly why Marxist-Leninist types have denied the Jewish people the right to the national self-determination they insist on for other marginalized peoples.

But history is not the only way to organize time. Traditional pre-modern societies have frequently used repeating cycles of ages and concepts like the eternal return to structure temporal reality.

The four ages cycle of decay and rebirth in Hinduism is the best known, comprised of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yugas. Comparable to the four ages in Greek/Roman mythology (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron), cyclical time is what Frederich Nietzsche called the “eternal recurrence.” “Everything has returned. […] [A]ll things will return. […] [F]or mankind this is always the hour of Noon.” This radical reactionary’s promotion of what he considered simultaneously to be humanity’s heaviest burden and a love of one’s own fate (amor fati) illustrates a key distinction between antiquity and modernity, what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the concept of the “eternal return.” The desire and capacity to return to a mythical golden age is the theme of his flawed, simplistic study The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade covered not just cyclical time but the power of origins, the distinction between the sacred and profane and the importance of sacred time, the use of myth and ritual to become contemporaneous with a past golden age, and the terror of history. While in his 20’s, Mircea Eliade was sympathetic with, though not a member of, Corneliu Codreanu’s fascist Christian Legion of the Archangel Michael—the bloody, brutal Romanian Iron Guard that the Nazis considered too extreme. He distanced himself from overt rightwing involvements even as he maintained close friendships with parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola who advocated for similar notions of cyclical time and the eternal return.

“In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return of the terror of history. “We know how, in the past, humanity has been able to endure the sufferings we have enumerated: they were regarded as a punishment inflicted by God, the syndrome of the decline of the ‘age,’ and so on. And it was possible to accept them precisely because they had a metahistorical meaning […] Every hero repeated the archetypal gesture, every war rehearsed the struggle between good and evil, every fresh social injustice was identified with the sufferings of the Saviour (or, for example, in the pre-Christian world, with the passion of a divine messenger or vegetation god), each new massacre repeated the glorious end of the martyrs. […] By virtue of this view, tens of millions of men were able, for century after century, to endure great historical pressures without despairing, without committing suicide or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.”

Nietzsche may have coined the expression “historical sickness” (historische Krankheit) in critiquing the study of history, preferring the idea of genealogy to express the power of origins and relations. To be fair, an acceptance of cyclical time is not always an embrace. Buddhism expresses a terror of the eternal return in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, which is the cyclical time of ages writ personal. The Sacred cannot exist within time according to Buddhism which seeks a transcendence of both the ego and the cosmic. And even within the profane time understood as history—that supposedly linear march of facts and events devoid of any inherent meaning or sacrality—there is the tendency to see cycles. Certain schools of Marxism contend that the ultimate goal of a stateless, nationless, classless communism is humanity’s original primitive communism taken to a higher level, implying that history is not cyclical so much as an upward spiral.

Braudel and the Annales School to which he belonged actually divided historical time into individual time, social time and geographical time. Individual time is the courte durée history of “individuals with names,” the superficial linear histoire événementielle chronicling of events, facts, politics and people that is without deep significance, pattern or meaning. Social time is the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures. Geographical time is the imperceptibly evolving repetitive cycles of the natural environment. These three types of historical time are to be contrasted with the cyclical time of traditional societies and rightwing politics which is rigidly patterned, drenched in fixed meaning, and eternally repeating. In Pynchon’s dichotomy, individual time is anti-paranoia whereas cyclical time is paranoia. Everything in between is history proper.

And the abolition of the nation-state remains on the agenda.

Notes on the Eternal Recurrence by Frederich Nietzsche
Capital by Karl Marx
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
The Modern World-System by Immanuel Wallerstein
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon




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The take off that didn’t: non-canonical codicil to MRR #443

I’m a proponent of world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein, Amin, Arrighi, Frank et al). This theory is based on the analysis of longue durée commercial/industrial/financial “secular cycles” by Fernand Braudel who posited interlinked Venetian/Genoese (1250-1627), Dutch (1500-1733), British (1733-1896), and American (1850-present) cycles in the rise of the modern world capitalist economy. The so-called first Industrial Revolution (1750-1914) can be positioned firmly within the context of these cycles as a period of dynamic, sustained economic growth that Walt Rostow characterized as the “take-off” stage of world capitalism. Rostow’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution’s origins, in turn, reads remarkably similar to economic developments associated with the ebullient High Middle Ages (HMA; 1000-1300) when “urban life reemerged, long-distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling” according to David Routt. So why didn’t European protocapitalism “take off” in a prequel economic explosion during the HMA?

One reason, of course, was the Great Famine (1315-17) and the magna pestilencia of the Black Death (1347-53) which together wiped out between one quarter and three quarters of Europe’s population. But I would argue that the worsening relationship between Christian Europe and the Jewish diaspora dating from the collapse of the western Roman Empire (300-476) through the Late Middle Ages (LMA; 1300-1500) was also a factor.

The Early Middle Ages (EMA; 500-1000) is sometimes called the Dark Ages. The EMA witnessed Europe slowly, painfully emerge after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and various Germanic barbarian invasions due to a consolidation of the Catholic Church with Charlemagne’s conquests that formed the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Neither holy, Roman, nor an empire (per Voltaire), the feudal HRE did try to reconcile Christianity and Judaism through various papal/imperial sicut Judaeis policies of religious toleration in western and central Europe. This resulted in installing the ethnic Jewish diaspora in its midst as a “middleman minority” to serve as an engine for protocapitalist development. The economic success of this “middleman minority” strategy in turn fostered resentment and reaction among Christian Europeans. The HRE’s costly Crusades (1095-1270) to recapture the “Holy Land” (the Levant) from Islam resulted in 50,000 Jews being slaughtered in the First Crusade’s (1095-99) Rhineland and Danube massacres and the siege of Jerusalem. The First Crusade is often considered a turning point in European Christian/Jewish relations.

Thus began an inchoate effort starting in the HMA to fully Christianize Europe’s feudal economy and its protocapitalist component by liquidating the Jewish “middleman minority.” This diffuse movement was associated often with growing if embroyonic national identities and sometimes with efforts at state formation. Jewish occupations were severely restricted, Jewish livelihood was marginalized, and the Jews themselves were massacred, then had their property confiscated through exorbitant taxation before being expelled from various feudal territories in western and central Europe. (Crimea, 1016, 1350; Silesia, 1159, 1494; England/Wales, 1290; France, 1306, 1322, 1394; Germany, 1348; Hungary, 1349, 1367; Austria, 1421; Cologne, 1426; Provence, 1430; Lithuania, 1445, 1495; Bavaria, 1450; Spain/Sardinia/Sicily, 1492; Portugal, 1497.) Marxists might notice the parallels of this with a process called primitive accumulation which preceded the formation of nation-states and national capitalist economies in Europe.

Ever worsening antisemitism became the order of the day. Jews were ghettoized, forced to wear special humiliating clothing, and forbidden contact with Christians. By the beginning of the LMA, the German and Russian cities of the Hanseatic League (1250-1650) were judenrein even as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gave refuge to Jews through the Statute of Kalisz. “That German commerce does not need the Jews is proven by the Fuggers, the Welsers, and the Hanseatic League, none of which succumbed to Jewish influence” wrote Konstantin von Gebsattel. Fernand Braudel noted: “There was no truly international economy before the Hanseatic League,” and also wrote that: “Genoa and Venice, in a parallel way, held the Mediterranean space necessary for their grandeur by force, or through the medium of merchant colonies.” He argued that “the world victory of the Atlantic” economy accounted for “the mortal blow to the Mediterranean space which surrounded Italy,” not the erratic persecution, restriction and expulsion of Jews in the Italian territories that marked “the displacement of chains and networks of Jewish merchants. But is it not rather that the success of Amsterdam attracted the Jews to settle there?”

Along with bankrupting Holy Crusades, a decimating Great Famine and the Black Death pandemic, other factors contributed to European protocapitalism not experiencing an industrial-style take-off by the end of the HMA/beginning of the LMA. These other factors included the Mongol invasion and the Hundred Year’s War. Oh yes, and feudalism itself was a major contributor, with its woefully immature state formation even in the LMA. Both the Baltic Hanseatic League and the Venetian/Genoese Mediterranean powerhouse were comprised of politically weak federations of rival city-states. But the often violent expropriation of minority Jewish capital by majority Christian capital certainly figured into the equation.

Raul Hilberg, in his three volume opus The Destruction of the European Jews, argued that the expropriation of the Jews was a necessary, connected precursor to their destruction. Yet he also wrote: “But what began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance, not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint and there was no budget for destructive measures. They were taken step by step, one step at a time. Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus – mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy.” The same can be said about the history of the Jews in Europe throughout the Middle Ages up until the Nazi Holocaust, albeit as an even more dispersed process.

Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg both identified the primitive accumulation needed for the development of European capitalism with the expropriation of the peasantry starting at the end of the LMA. Let’s consider the expropriation of the Jews during the HMA a kind of primeval accumulation, one that actually hindered the transformation of European protocapitalism into capitalism proper. Whereas primitive accumulation relied on nothing more complicated than the direct expropriation of peasant lands through practices like the English enclosure movements, primeval accumulation required the wide ranging yet scattershot expropriation of highly networked Jewish diasporic capital that was commercial, industrial and financial. This Christianization of Jewish diasporic capital—along with Crusades, famine, pestilence, war and feudal insufficiencies—disrupted the continental economy, destroyed the wealth of the HMA and hindered capitalism’s take-off for several centuries.

Pattern recognition and antisemitism: “What’s Left?” April 2020 (MRR #443)

Fight or flight.

This is the instinctual response our Pleistocene predecessors supposedly evolved when threatened with physical danger, attack or threats to survival while roaming the African savannas. It often involves an acute physiological reaction which Jeff Hester describes thusly: “Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic.” Hester argues that such instantaneous, visceral reactions to the possibility of being mauled by a cheetah or gored by a wildebeest are no longer necessary, even counterproductive given the not-so-mortal threats of twenty-first century life, which instead require thoughtful, measured responses. What isn’t acknowledged here is that fight or flight is sometimes pattern recognition become automatic, perhaps innate, and certainly unthinking.

I’m walking across Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park with my backpack and sleeping bag in the fall of 1990. It’s a balmy afternoon with honeyed sun and liquid blue skies. I’ve just had a slice of pizza at Two Boots and I’m headed for the 1st Avenue subway station for a ride to Brooklyn. It’s almost two years since the infamous riots and the square is crowded with punks and crusties, squatters and junkies, tourists and residents. I’ve just passed through a group of black kids playing stickball when I approach three white punks camped out under some trees. Something isn’t right. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the way the punks are giving me the side eye, deliberately not looking at me while secretly sizing up me and my belongings. Maybe it’s the foot long rebar pole one of them is clutching as they pretend to ignore me. In any case, I decide to give them a wide berth and they are obviously disappointed. I sit on a bench to rest, far enough away to be safe but within sight of the punk delinquents. As soon as I’m out of their range, they target another passerby whom they proceed to viciously mug in broad daylight.

I recognized some dangerous pattern, if only intuitively, and I reacted to protect myself. Instinctive fight or flight responses too often become unthinking emotional reactions that amount to little more than bigotry, prejudice or superstition. Why then did I feel no fear among the black kids wildly playing stickball yet felt growing anxiety approaching the three seemingly cool punkers resting among the trees? Let me use some history to illustrate the difference between unthinking reaction and reasonable pattern recognition.

The Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious promulgated the Statute of Kalisz in 1264. This was the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland granting Jews personal freedoms, legal and communitarian autonomy, independent courts for criminal matters, and safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. Modeled after similar edicts for religious toleration enacted across Europe during the Early Middle Ages (EMA), it was ratified by the aristocratic Sejm and subsequent Polish kings even as Jews experienced massacres in and mass expulsions from England, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain during the High Middle Ages (HMA). By the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1773 to 1795, some 70-80% of world Jewry resided in Poland. Much of Polish Jewry wound up incorporated into Russia’s regional ghetto—the Pale of Settlement—after 1791, subject to escalating antisemitic discrimination, repression and violence that culminated in a series of genocidal pogroms. Ukraine alone witnessed 1,326 programs with up to 250,000 Jewish deaths and a half million left homeless from 1881 to 1920. This savage bloodshed ended only after Hitler’s Final Solution.

The Statute of Kalisz was to preserve the “pure” feudal nature of Polish society while promoting protocapitalist development. Jews were invited guests intended to be a middle stratum between an intact Polish peasantry/serfdom and aristocracy. Unable to own land, Jews were expected to take on shopkeeper, artisan, professional, trader/merchant, rent or tax collector, and moneylender roles prohibited these native Polish social classes by feudal custom and tradition. All this while the rest of Christian Europe during the HMA was increasingly restricting the occupations permitted the Jews and marginalizing their economic status. After the Babylonian Exile and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, autonomous ethnic Jewish communities with self-governing communal (kehillah) and mutual aid (landsmanshaft) institutions spread across the Middle East, northern Africa, Europe and beyond in an ever widening diaspora. Hubert Blalock and Edna Bonacich called this an example of an ethnic/racial “middleman minority” and noted that the minority’s financial aptitude, economic success, clannishness, and international networks combined with political restrictions, religious prohibitions and social prejudices to cause growing resentment and reaction in a host country’s native population. These popular resentments in turn were exploited and manipulated by respective ruling classes and their allied elites.

The acrimony and violence directed against the far-flung communities of this Jewish diaspora wasn’t fueled merely by antisemitism engendered by their status as a “middleman minority” however. Imperial machinations, uprisings and war, even tribal/national revolts figured into this barbarism as when a Cossack rebellion—the Khmelnytsky Uprising—slaughtered up to 100,000 Jews and Poles in its bid to form a Cossack Hetmanate in what is now central Ukraine in 1648-57. My parents regularly used “Cossack” as a curse.

By the time I visited my Polish relatives at the end of 1974, there were virtually no Jews in Poland. Yet racist antisemitism was rampant in the general Polish population—my relatives included—who were steeped in every antisemitic canard imaginable. Here I make no distinction between Catholic religious anti-Judaism and fully racialized Nazi antisemitism. A reworking of Sartre’s contention that Jewish identity is brought about and maintained by the force of antisemitism has become relevant once again, although not in the way thinkers like Georges Friedmann originally considered when his work The End of the Jewish People? posited an eventual disappearance of the Jews through assimilation and hyperspecific Israeli national identity. The fear, hostility and hatred of Jews that is conventional antisemitism is now an antisemitism without Jews in Poland.

According to Poles, Jews were guilty of killing Jesus, desecrating the host, engaging in ritual murder and blood libel, poisoning wells and spreading plague, having sex with animals, and being Satanic. The Jews controlled the media and the world banking system, practiced malefic profiteering and sinful usury, were complicit in conspiracies to spread both capitalism and communism, and plotted world domination. When I confronted my relatives and their idiotic antisemitic beliefs that Jews were plotting conspiracies against Poland and stealing the wealth of the Polish people with the fact that there were no Jews left in Poland— thinking that maybe they suffered from some weird sociological phantom limb syndrome—they countered with crap about the Soviets having deliberately installed Jewish commissars throughout the Warsaw Pact.

These blatant often millennia-old antisemitic tropes are refashioned, frequently with only minor variations, when other “middleman minorities” like the Armenians or the “overseas” Chinese are considered. Such minorities are part of larger ethnic diasporas that occupy key roles in indigenous capitalist economies to promote prosperity, engender economic benefit, and create new business and industry for the communities and nations in which they reside. Yet they invariably suffer discrimination, repression, hatred, violence, and genocide as a consequence of their intermediate position in society. The Jewish 1939-45 Holocaust and Armenian 1914-23 Genocide are well known. Less well known are the mass slaughter of Chinese in Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937-38 and the mass killings of Chinese in Indonesia, Papua/New Guinea and East Timor by Suharto and his military in 1965-66 under the auspices of virulent anti-communist campaigns, not to mention numerous localized anti-Chinese pogroms throughout Southeast Asia. Similar historical patterns and prejudices can be observed with the Muslims in India and the Indians in Africa.

The positive social and economic arrangements of ethnic “middleman minorities” as well as the negative racist, bigoted, violent and genocidal responses experienced by those minorities are real historical patterns to be reckoned with. The reactionary claims by racists and antisemites against those minorities are sheer horseshit to be summarily dismissed. The latter in no way absolves the former though. The Biblical Hebrews annihilated the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 21:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) much as the Israelis practice national genocide against the Palestinian people today. The Chinese have been slaughtering minority peoples from the Wu Hu and the Jie in 300 ce to the present day cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Uighurs. And the Armenians have been trading massacres with their Azerbaijani neighbors since the EMA all the way through the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994. I’m tempted to argue that we humans have a propensity for genocide ever since our Cro-Magnon ancestors potentially caused the extinction of our Neanderthal comrades between 40 and 35,000 years ago. Maybe next column.

Personal recollections
A History of the Jewish People ed. by H.H Ben-Sasson
The End of the Jewish People? by Georges Friedmann
Jews in Poland: A Documentary History by Iwo Pogonowski
Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations by Hubert Blalock
“A Theory of Middleman Minorities” by Edna Bonacich
The Stages of Economic Growth by W.W. Rostow
“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” by David Routt
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel
The Modern World-System v. 1-4 by Immanuel Wallerstein