Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pride and the Laws of Motion

Well over a century ago, Karl Marx set out to come to grips with history  by discovering its laws of motion.   The philosophical and scientific underpinnings of this enterprise were significant;  the allusion to Newton, deliberate.

In the aftermath, the laws he developed (the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit, etc.) have proved a most uncertain guide to actual events on the ground.   This does not per se refute these laws themselves -- to see this, we need look no farther than physics:  Knowledge of the Schrödinger equation, Maxwell’s equations and the rest, is of little help in predicting the evolution of a hurricane  or the flight of a bat.  And even in the classical arena of a single billiard-ball, prediction quickly breaks down  unless the table is one of a sharply restricted set of shapes.

A fortiori, predicting human events at any granularity finer than that of the Kondratieff cycle  finds little support in the laws of Marx.    To discern the trigger of events (as opposed to their full background), we almost need to stand Marx on his head:  A man will not revolt because he is poor, but he may well take to the streets from resentment of his better-off neighbors.   A huge amount of what happens in the world  is the immediate result of wounded pride.  SUPERBIA, and its thwarting, lies coiled at the heart of events.

Pieter Bruegel der Ältere -- Das schlimmste der sieben Laster


Thus, consider the astonishing wave of revolts these days in the Arab world.   The ultimate fostering causes and conditions  are many;  but the spark that toppled the first of the dominoes  was the self-immolation of the Tunisian Muhammad al-Bu`azizi (محمد البوعزيزي -- usually transcribed Bouazizi).

Why did he do it? 
The standard narrative is a dumbed-down, sanitized version of the actual roilings of Geist und Zeitgeist -- spirit and the spirit of the times.  As:
When police confiscated his produce because he didn’t have a permit he became so sad that he set himself on fire in protest.
(Actually, lack of permit was not the problem:

… the desperate act of an unemployed man. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, distraught when police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand, set himself on fire
-- Mona Eltahawy Washington Post, Saturday, January 15, 2011
(Not quite right to call him unemployed;  he worked as a street vendor.)

Likewise Le Monde (5 Jan 11):
Ce diplômé au chômage s'était aspergé d'essence devant la préfecture, après s'être fait confisquer la marchandise qu'il vendait dans la rue par la police municipale parce qu'il n'avait pas les autorisations nécessaires.
(Actually he was not a diplômé -- he may not even have finished high school.   This meme crept in probably because it conforms more exactly to a self-pitying standard Western narrative:  college graduate can’t find employment commensurate with his/her own outstanding excellence.)

And the New York Times:
March 1, 2011
Future historians will long puzzle over how the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, managed to trigger popular uprisings across the Arab/Muslim world.

Future historians  may indeed wonder, if that is the narrative they are working from.  Such an account leaves it incomprehensible why the man resorted to such an act -- “They took my bahnahhnahs!   Pass the kerosene!” -- nor why it resonated so sharply among the populace:  the more so since, as these same accounts acknowledge, petty police harassment of vendors was an everyday thing:  a harassment that, indeed, pales beside the tortures that go on in the prisons, out of sight.   And it highlights the foolishness of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who point fingers at the intelligence community and demand to know why it did not predict this.

This morning, the Washington Post belatedly alludes to the truth:

The psycho-sociological crux is front-and-center in this earlier, better article:

Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia
“She humiliated him,” said his sister, Samia Bouazizi. “Everyone was watching.”

This is not a narrative that Western liberals wish to hear.  Neither Thomas Friedman,  sucking such factors as “Google Earth”, “the Beijing Olympics”, and “something I’ve dubbed ‘Fayyadism’ ” out of his outsize thumb to explain it all, nor Hillary Clinton, peddling her one-size-fits-all Wellesley agenda around the world, is furthering comprehension.  Nor will Marx help much -- more like Freud.

Die materialistische Theorie,  auf den Kopt gestellt

Update:  Indeed, as reported in the 4 April 2011 New Yorker: "The initial slogan was 'Dignity Before Bread', because Bouazizi was humiliated.”

[Update 6 Aug 2011] Sidi Bouzid:  the sorry, sodden aftermath.

In Tunisian Town of Arab Spring Martyr, Disillusionment Seeps In

[Update 2 April 2012] 
Triste mise à jour:

[Update 16 Sept 2012]  Reflections on the subject, in the wake of the Anti-Islamic Video affair, that led to the storming of embassies:


The basic point here is not new.  Perhaps the bottom of this page may become a repository of similar observations.  Thus, Christine Stansell (American Moderns, p. 140), on the anarchist Emma Goldman (whose floruit antedates America’s entry into WWI, and thus the Russian Revolutions and the foundations of the subsequent CPs):
She argued that it was “spiritual hunger and unrest”, not just economic oppression, that drove people to rebel.

Bertram D. Wolfe's autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries (1981):
War fits even less than nationalism into the materialist interpretation of history.  … The driving forces of modern war are fierce untamable mass massions -- pride, anger, xenophobia … The ‘war aims’, thematerial motives and calculations, had hastily to be improvised after war erupted, to give the irrational explosion … an ostensibly rational explanation…

And, again in a Muslim context:

Pakistan’s generals and diplomats  were proud but easily bruised.
-- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (2004), p.  516

In the American sociological tradition, motives similar to these (which I have called by the grand old word Pride) have been discussed more academically and sedately under the rubric status anxiety.  A valid perspective, certainly, but one that does not quite manage to get its arms around the deep upheavals that are shuddering through much of the world today.  You don’t go to the public square and set yourself on fire out of status anxiety.

For a classic analysis of the role of Thwarted Superbia  as the hidden key to mass behavior, see the classic account by Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (1990).


When a subset seeks political independence,

Its intellectuals will exchange second-class citizenship [in the extant larger polity] for a first-class citizenship [albeit in a second-rate state] plus great privileges based on rarity;  its proletarians will exchange hardships-with-snubs  for possibly greater hardships with national identification.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 172

[Updates & Afterthoughts]

Gideon Rachman meint, dass die Anerkennung eines verletzten Nationalstolzes in vielen internationalen Krisenherden eine wichtige Rolle bei der Konfliktlösung spielen könnte. "The implication of all this is that solving international conflicts may involve thinking as much about emotions as about interests. Sometimes the concession required to address a sense of national or cultural humiliation may be impossible. Nobody is going to concede a caliphate to tend to the wounded feelings of Isis. But sometimes the gestures required to restore a sense of national pride may be relatively minor. Greece does not seem to have extracted significant concessions from its creditors. Nonetheless, a display of national defiance, combined with some linguistic and technical changes, appears to have mollified the Greeks for now. As the west contemplates a dangerous conflict with Russia and the ambitions of China, it might remember that symbols can sometimes matter almost as much as substance."
(Financial Times vom 09.03.2015)

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