Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 01:28 on 02-10-2016, Arthur B
Nah, it's fine, there won't be an outage this year.
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at 20:15 on 01-10-2016, Robinson L
Dunno about you folks, but I'm set up with marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate, and looking forward to making some killer s'mores. And just yesterday, they delivered my TeXt Factor Classics Volume 1 Platinum Deluxe Edition, which I figure should see me through the long, cold blackout.

I think I've got plenty of kindling, but if I run low, you can rest assured Furies of Calderon will be the first one to feed the fire pit.
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at 18:30 on 01-10-2016, Robinson L
Well, it's October, Ferretbrain, and you all know what that means. Has everybody battened down the hatches, stocked up the supply closets, and prepared to hunker down for the annual Epic Website Meltdown?
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at 22:33 on 30-09-2016, Ibmiller
I enjoyed those articles as well. I love comics, but I am tired of writers who hector and lecture and alienate their audience, instead of developing a persona which makes people want to read their stuff.

I think Robinson is totally right about why it happens - but it's really frustrating when people who are clearly high enough on the totem pole have no self awareness.
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at 23:02 on 28-09-2016, Arthur B
To be fair, I think that's all implied by "some kind of weird version of Stockholm syndrome".
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at 22:00 on 28-09-2016, Robinson L
Read through the first half of the first article and skimmed the rest. It's an excellent piece, and well-argued.

My only quibble is when the author writes: "All of this is Marvel's fault, not yours or mine, and the propensity of comic book creators to guilt trip fans about preordering has to be classified as some kind of weird version of Stockholm syndrome."

I don't dispute the author's assertion of where fault lies, but I see nothing incongruous about this behavior on the part of creators. Think about it: you are a 21st century comic book creator. Chances are, you love comic books, and you love writing them. You want to be able to write comic book stories and distribute them for other people to enjoy. And you would like to be paid enough to make a living off of writing comic books, because likely none of your other job prospects are anywhere near so fun.

This means you have to find employment at one of the major comics publishing companies (or, more likely, more than one). It's an asymmetrical relationship in which they hold most or all of the power: they can afford to go on without you, but you can't survive without them. All of this being the case, what are the chances that you will publicly criticize an aspect of your employers' business model, no matter how outrageous? Pretty damn low, right? You're more likely to toe the party line and keep those paychecks coming in.

Now, I learned in Psych 101 that our behavior plays a role in shaping our values. People don't handle cognitive dissonance very well, so if you as a creator act in a way that's consonant with your employer's business model, you're apt to internalize the logic of that model as well. So when you get angry and upset over a good book's cancellation, are you going to blame your employers' business model? Or is your professional self-preservation instinct more likely to kick in and subconsciously prompt you to channel those feelings of anger and blame onto the employer-approved scapegoat group(s)? Will you lash out against your own source of livelihood, or against the people your source of livelihood claims are responsible, no matter how weak the claim may be?
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at 15:02 on 08-09-2016, Robinson L
No fear, Janne, it's entirely understandable. As you can see, my own reply has taken me a few days to share. I hope your statistics studies are rewarding for you.

It's funny you bring up Snyder's scholarship. I actually heard a podcast of his lecture at the LSE and also an appearance on the BBC's Start The Week after the publication of his latest book, Black Earth a thematic sequel to Bloodlands. I'm going to talk about those in some detail in the next paragraph, and I want to put up a trigger warning for discussion of the European Jewish Holocaust.

In both podcast appearances, Snyder argued that Jews from states which the Nazis essentially dissolved (such as Poland and Czechoslovakia) were much more likely to be murdered in the Holocaust than Jewish citizens of states which maintained their institutions, even ones which, like Hungary, were much more antisemitic in temperament. Snyder gives this as an argument for why states should not be allowed to dissolve - though in the LSE lecture, he clarified that if they are, we should first ensure those life-saving institutions of the states remain in place. It seems to me that his own logic argues in favor of the latter scenario, for by his own account, while the French state did a fairly good job of protecting French Jews (quite a few were murdered, but not nearly as many as Czech and Polish), it also cheerfully shipped numerous foreign Jews to the gas chambers. Once again, we see nationality preempting common humanity.

(I was going to include this stuff in my last comment, but whilst looking up a couple of details, I ran into several articles criticizing Snyder's scholarship in Bloodlands and Black Earth and disputing many of his claims. I haven't looked into the details, and I suspect I'd have to be a much more informed student of the history to sort out whose argument is most plausible; but I'm now taking Snyder's claims with a grain of salt.)

I'm aware that indigenous and other minority cultures have embraced nationality as part of their struggles against exploitation and domination. From my point of view at several removes, I have two broad thoughts on this. The first is that something which gives you a tactical advantage in struggling for cultural survival is probably a worthwhile pursuit in the short run, regardless of its desirability as a model of society at large. The second is that such groups usually share belief systems, foundation myths, ritual practices, communal organizations and other cultural markers (including a strong connection to geographic territory) - the stuff which, as I've said, is pretty weak if not absent in a territory as vast as, e.g., the US of A; under those circumstances, "nationalism" might be a reasonable organizing category. As I said, I haven't made a study of this stuff, and it's so far outside of my experience that we might as well be talking about completely different concepts, so I can't comment further on that one.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Orwell's distinction between nationalism and patriotism, and I'm not sure what the practical on-the-ground consequences of what you're suggesting would be. My feeling is that nationalism as I am most familiar with it - in the context of places such as the United States - denies flexibility, porosity, hybridity, fluidity, multiplicty, and seems to facilitate "us vs. them" thinking more easily than other potential group identities.

Probably most things in life have some positive or negative qualities. I view nationalism - again, as I understand it - on approximately the same level I view feudalism or militarism. I think their negative qualities are systemic and their positive qualities can be better organized through other means. Maybe that's an irrational bias on my part, I don't know.

I think the European Union has done wonderful things in promoting more free movement and cross-cultural experiences among EU citizens. My worry, however, is that it also promotes a sort of supranationalism based around European identity, with the unspoken subtext being "white, and secular Christian." The "Fortress Europe" mentality, in other words. It conjures to my - admittedly not very well informed - mind images of Medieval European countries agreeing to set aside their differences to an extent, and coming together in the spirit of love and Christian brotherhood to go murder the hell out of those Muslims in the Land of Jesus. Maybe those are two unrelated factors and maybe they're not - I don't know.

Austerity rears its perfidious head all over the damn place, doesn't it? I'm sorry to hear about the troubles you folks are going through out there, and I hope more sensible forces prevail, and sooner rather than later. I'm glad to hear that your education system is mostly hanging on, so far. You deserve nothing but the best, and the rest of us can do with examples to club over the heads of people who come to us spouting bullshit about how "there is no alternative."
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at 12:12 on 05-09-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Robinson:
Sorry it took me such a long time to answer! I'm just starting my new studies in mathematical statistics and am kinda swamped right now, since I really need to work on my math skills(like basic stuff).

I do agree with your points about nationalism and its connection to statehood or how it is so often conflated with ethnicityand the negative aspects of group thinking. There is an interesting book by Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands where one of the emerging argumnts is that even in the middle of the horribleness that was the eastern front in the Second World War, being a citizen of a nation protected an individual to some degree (of course not that much, that it was safe in any meaning of the word), even if they were of a threatened group. So being a citizen of a nation confers several privileges that are denied those, that are not citizens. And like all privileges, it is often thought of as a right intrinsic to a certain kind of individual (of certain ethnicity, language, religion &c.), rather than as something created by law by a certain society for certain individuals, which is not necessarily connected to any real shared characteristics and rather more on coincidence (where the individual happens to be born, for example). And when privileges are seen as natural rights of certain people, but not of others, it is easier to think less of those other groups and treat them as something less. Like for example by their instrumental economic value in the short term for example. And this sort of nasty group thinking can be exploited for many nefarious ends.

So no, nationalism can not be a basis for ranking individual worth and it is certainly not an adequate basis for a political ideology. But it, like most things can have positive traits as well. It does create a sense of identity and social cohesion, which can make many benevolent policies possible. And it can be an inclusive phenomenon as well as exclusive. It very much depends on other things interacting with it, like politics often do. But granted, an us vs. them mentality is an easier sell in many cases. Stalin was probably not a nationalist, but he ceratinly exploited Russian nationalism. Similarly, it has been argued that Hitler was actually not a nationalist, he merely exploited nationalistic sentiment to make his own ideas of society a reality.

It is interesting to note that nationalism was in many cases a movement that co-existed with liberalism and socialism in the 19th century and many small ethnicities in the world have organized to struggle agains exploitation and oppression by nationality as well as ethnicity. And this, of course has backfired multiple times too, perhaps most famously in the Balkans at the beginning of 20th century.

But taking into account, how prevalent a sort of thinking by groups is, it might be a good idea to include the tendency to think of societies as something concrete in political movements, since it can be inclusive and it does not have to be the basis of anything. I guess there should be a distinction of terms, like Orwell had between nationalism and patriotism.

Now I have to confess that I have been using these terms a bit haphazardly, assuming their definitions are unambiguos. In the finnish language, what Orwell referred to as nationalism and which seems to be your take on it as well, is called sovinismi, from chauvinism, or at least it used to. Nationalism is sort of neutral and depends very much on the context. Patriotism on the other hand is seen as a mostly positive word, but is maybe a bit militaristic in the sense of national defense, which has a domestic political dimension all of its own, because of historical and some contemporary reasons. But I guess what I'm aiming at is some sort of positive reading of patriotism.

The idea of anti-nationalist or internationalist(or cosmopolitanist or pan-nationalist?) ethic is acceptable to me, but it is like you said a question of why just one each? Is cosmopolitanism and patriotism mutually exclusive? The question of citizenhood is a good one and I think one of the better achievements of the EU has been the concept of EU-citizen, which makes it possible for individuals to change countries much more freely than has not been the case really ever before. And such co-operation between communities (which I consider countries to be), is a good thing. But internationalism is still a very large idea and fairly abstract in its universalism. Perhaps patriotism could be understood in a sort of care ethics way, where if you consider the country your in to have a beneficial effect on its citizens and in balance a good effect beyond its borders, then it is sensible to wish to preserve the good you perceive to be there and try to minimize the bad. The real question of course is what each individual considers to be good or bad. If one works with a right sort of basic ethical concept, like egalitarism, perhaps the form of patriotism is more considerate of all people as well. But if one considers that some people can be and are better than others, then the resulting chauvinism is not as beneficial.

In terms of recognition, though - doesn't Finland have, like, the greatest education system on the planet? That's something to be proud of.


Yes, it is a very good system. Our current governments have made some pretty large cuts to education, especially higher education. It seems that our governement thinks that in order to get ready to support a very large aging population, the smart thing to do to save money is to cut from educating the young. Its a consequence of trying to do austerity in combination with investing for the future. But education is still good, if struggling a bit, at the moment.
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at 20:02 on 26-08-2016, Robinson L
(The Bard said "brevity is the soul of wit." I leave it up to the reader to judge what kind of wit I must have.)
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at 20:00 on 26-08-2016, Robinson L
Janne: Don't forget Finland! We're always happy when our modest ugrian existences are noticed in the big world

Right, sorry. I think I knew that, but I wasn't sure, and I just went with the two influences I was certain about. I expect there are other mythologies Tolkien made use of which I overlooked, too.

In terms of recognition, though - doesn't Finland have, like, the greatest education system on the planet? That's something to be proud of.

I would be much more worried, if the things I like had no negative qualities at all in my view, since that might be an indication of obliviousness on my part.

Right, absolutely, but I think there's a difference between, say, someone like Terry Pratchett writing stuff with negative qualities because he has some unexamined prejudices and because probably everyone has one or two reactionary beliefs in them somewhere, and someone like Orson Scott Card actively promoting the negative qualities in his writings because he thinks they're virtuous. I'd put Tolkien as a writer more towards the right side of that spectrum.

romanticized national mythologies ... are pretty much prevalent everywhere and across most political movements, since it connects so readily to people's self-identification with a certain place and society, which I would argue can be a good thing as well and very hard to eliminate, if it is considered a categorically bad thing.

I have a number of problems with nationalism as presently understood, at least some of which are directly related to its contemporary conflation with statehood. Here are some of them:

*Nationhood is generally ranked higher than common humanity in terms of a person or group's priorities; and nationhood, not common humanity, is responsible for a given person or group's care. Thus it is acceptable, even moral, to treat people who don't share your national identity differently (and worse) than people who do. (In terms of migration and refugees, race, religion, class, and a fistful of other factors also play a role, but I'd argue national citizenship is an aggravating factor.) A corollary is that people with no national citizenship, or whose nation cannot support them or has actively turned against them are nobody else's responsibility. To return to the example of refugees: other nationalities might lend help out of charity (or, more rarely, solidarity), but they have no systemic obligation to do so. A year or two ago, I read an article on io9 speculating about artificial intelligences, and arguing that the key question regarding AIs may not be whether they are persons, but whether they are citizens, because citizenship, not personhood, is what confers inalienable rights.

And in the case of nations which have become destructive towards the wellbeing of their own citizens, whether through malice or neglect or a combination thereof (take, for example, the case of Flint, Michigan), there's relatively little outside actors can do about it because, again, nationhood trumps common humanity.

*The baseline assumption is that everyone will and should have a single fixed nationality. People without nationality have no one and nothing obligated to care for them and ensure their wellbeing, and others are at liberty to do all manner of horrible things to them with virtual impunity.

On the flip side, dual national citizenship is incredibly rare to my knowledge, and I'm not even sure if it's possible to go above two nationalities. Changing one's nationality is also incredibly difficult. This despite the fact that many people move around a lot and have ties to and personal stakes in many different communities over the course of their lives. These connections we make to places and communities seems to me a much more profound indication of belonging than what nationality we happened to be born into.

*National borders not only impede human mobility, but perpetuate the fallacy that you can divide the Earth's surface into discreet units, and occludes the fact that something which takes place within one nation's "sovereign territory" has profound implications for other parts of the world (climate change being only the most extreme example). Also, those borders have historically shifted around immensely, and while this has often led to a great number of people getting rather stroppy when they lose territory - and occasionally when they gain it - the addition or subtraction of various pieces of land seem to have very little effect upon the "national character."

*National identity obscures the divisions within nations and the similarities across national boundaries. I daresay there are a significant number of people in Zimbabwe with whom I have more in common than I do with, say, a given New York movie star or high profile financier.

*These next points are based on my experience of the US, which I know is one of the bigger nations, so I don't know how well it applies to smaller countries - it may not apply to all places, but definitely to some. In the case of the United States, the "nation" covers a vast geographic territory, much of which I'll never even visit. Why should I feel a closer, more proprietary relationship with, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park than I do with the Swiss Alps, or the Greek island of Hydra, or the Alhambra in Spain (the latter three being places I've actually visited, at least).

Similarly, what do I share, culturally speaking, with the average resident of Shishmaref, Alaska, or Henderson, Nevada, or Shannon, Mississippi, or Fern Acres Hawaii, which is qualitatively more meaningful than what I have in common with the average resident of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, or Mérida, Yucatan, or New Plymouth, New Zealand, or Samtse, Bhutan? (Certainly, the former are likely to be more culturally similar to me than the latter, but to the point where I should share my main point of cultural identity with one but not the other?)

*Also, having a territory that large and a population that vast means that nations like the US are impossible to administer in any way that could credibly be thought of as democratic (by which I mean, "every citizen exercises self-determination and either plays a direct role in the decision-making process about issues which profoundly effect their lives, or exercises direct control over the people who represent them in that decision-making process").

*Final point: nationalism, the idea of a fixed, coherent group identity based on vague borders and vague cultural similarity, is what makes it possible for folks like Tolkien and the far right to fret over the polluting effect of "foreign influence" on their national cultures. This is a patently ludicrous notion, considering that change, adaptation, and evolution are the life blood of any culture, along with exchange and syncretism with other cultures. (The changes due to these processes aren't always good, mind you. How a culture changes as a result of its interactions with other cultures depends on any number of factors, but the fact that it's going to change somehow is inevitable.)

Connecting with a certain place and a certain society is all well and good, but I'd ask, "why just one of each?" and also argue that nationalism does an exceptionally poor job of it. Now, I've seen arguments that nationalism, when decoupled from statism, can be a more reasonable and benign entity, and I'm prepared to entertain that possibility, but in terms of the currently accepted formulation I retain serious reservations.

There's a reason anarchists, socialists, communists, and other radicals and leftists traditionally espouse an international/transnational/antinational ethic promoting solidarity with peoples' struggles and movements anywhere and everywhere, and stress interdependence and interconnection.

Granted, in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien advocated for groups coming together and cooperating with each other to combat great evil, but in his world these groups were still essentially separate. Now I come to think of it, while hospitality and entertaining visitors - or even the odd long-term guest - from other groups is good and proper, for the most part the groups keep themselves strictly demarcated. The only example of a vaguely cosmopolitan society in Tolkien's works is Bree, where humans and Hobbits (the two sapient races most akin to each other) intermix freely. Other than that, it's voluntary segregation all the way. (Not sure to what extent that applies to my point, honestly, but it's pretty striking.)


I'm actually surprised I can't dredge up a scholarly work on the history of anarchism or overview of contemporary theory - it seems like such an obvious thing, but I don't think I know of any such document.

Mutual Aid is one of maybe two of the classical 19th century anarchist works I've actually read. To be precise, I found an audio recording a couple of years ago. I should probably revisit it, as I've forgotten of what was said in it, though I think I recall the overall message pretty clearly.
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at 13:45 on 25-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
Robinson:
(Cribbing liberally from Norse Mythology and a bit from Greek was apparently a-ok, though.)


Don't forget Finland! We're always happy when our modest ugrian existences are noticed in the big world. I also love Tolkien and perhaps it is not so bad to like something that is problematic, as so many things are. I would be much more worried, if the things I like had no negative qualities at all in my view, since that might be an indication of obliviousness on my part.

But the thing with a romanticized national mythologies is that they are not only connected to fascism and the Nazis, thay are pretty much prevalent everywhere and across most political movements, since it connects so readily to people's self-identification with a certain place and society, which I would argue can be a good thing as well and very hard to eliminate, if it is considered a categorically bad thing. But appealing to some abstract national identity is a very common tactic of trying agitate people against groups and people considered to be outside this identity. But that is a much older thing than reactionary violent political movements of the 20th century.

On anarchism, I think that lack of easy books to peruse was my hurdle the last time, as I usually go about learning stuff by getting a book on the subject and then get frustrated, if there is too much hassle about it. That approach has its limitations and it does seem reasonable that anarchism as a political movement has more of a home outside old-fashioned publications, especially contemporary anarchism, as the movement was all but wiped out by the Spanish Civil War and Stalin as a larger political force and has not really recovered to its former glory.

So thanks for the recommendations again. I would personally recommend Kropotkin, even if I find some of his facts a bt suspect. Mutual Aid is, I think a good read.
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at 03:30 on 25-08-2016, Robinson L
Sorry for the delayed comment, work obligations have kept me busy.

I concur with Arthur about the role of divine authority in Tolkien's works. Actually, I was thinking less of kings, than folks like Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Aragorn to a lesser extent. These are exalted people, in a class of their own, not quite above question, but close, and in general things would be a lot better if lesser people would shut up and follow their guidance already.

Yes, elites in Tolkien go bad, but that never calls the existence of a class of elites set above everyone else into question. Elitism, in Tolkien's mythos is a good thing, which bequeaths greater knowledge, wisdom, and judgment to those elites who haven't gone bad. These elites are deserving of their lofty position over the common riff-raff and of being deferred to by said riff-raff. This is (one of) the things I find disturbing in Tolkien's writing, even if the specific kinds of elitism he advocated were fossils even by the time he was writing it.

Another point which slipped my mind until recently was Tolkien's obsession with nationalism and national identity and the "purity" of that identity. His original notion for his Legendarium was to create a national mythology for England, and he rejected existing candidates such as Arthurian Myth because of the polluting effect of furren influence such as the French. (Cribbing liberally from Norse Mythology and a bit from Greek was apparently a-ok, though.) This fixation on a romanticized national identity and national mythology, while it doesn't make Tolkien a Nazi or fascist fellow-traveler, makes his stories a lot more compatible with their ideologies.

Again, I want to stipulate that I'm speaking as a huuuuge fan of "Lord of the Rings" and The Hobbit, and my contribution to this discussion is from the point of view of "How to be a fan of problematic things."


@Janne: Well, given anarchism is by nature a rather free-wheeling political philosophy, it's hard to classify any particular facet as "essential" reading. Plus, as you say, all political ideologies contain a vast diversity of cooperating, competing, and contradicting beliefs and opinions under their general umbrella.

Here in the US, I've managed to get by with very little knowledge of Makhno or the pre-civil war Spanish anarchists, for whatever that's worth. (I also haven't read much of the "classic" 19th century anarchists, just like I've barely read any actual Marx.) And I can't think of anything in terms of an academic approach as you describe it - which is odd, because I feel like I've had that kind of experience, but I can't think where. Mostly, I just pick up the history and contemporary thought from tidbits in books and articles, podcasts, videos, conference panels, informal conversation, and the like.

Actually, now I think about it, Oppose and Propose!, published by AK Press, talks about a Quaker-founded activist community which operated in the US in the 1970s and 80s, and how it influenced a lot of the ideas and practices which have been largely adopted by Western anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups in the intervening years. The book is short, and it provides a scholarly approach to one small piece of the history, and some of the contemporary thought.

A couple of years ago, the LSE hosted a panel which was turned into a podcast, looking at late 19th/early 20th century anarchist understandings of sexuality, and how much they have influenced contemporary mainstream views. That's another small piece.

Then again, most of what I know is stuff considered relevant in the USA - and, to a lesser extent, the other English as first language countries and parts of Western Europe - I don't know how that compares to which parts of history and contemporary thought is more relevant in Eastern Europe.
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at 07:40 on 23-08-2016, Arthur B
Yeah, there was a massive might-makes-right component in fascism; there's an infamous incident where a member of a local Nazi party branch wrote to Hitler complaining that their local leader was an incompetent boob, and Hitler wrote back to the effect of "Don't bother central office with that, just get your buds together, take over the branch and force the old leader out". A lot of the structural eccentricities of the Reich arose in part because Hitler had to play divide-and-rule a lot, keeping the other leaders too busy fighting each other to oust him.

@Bill: You are correct that there were often bad kings in Tolkien, but I don't think that undermines the point about divine authority - in fact, bad kings are bad usually because they deviate from the order of things as mandated by Iluvatar.
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at 23:49 on 22-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
@Bill
Well, I agree that it can't be reduced to that exactly. But will and the ability to force it is a strong element of both fascism and nazism. I'm not about to go and reread Mein Kampf now, but the violent struggle of races and conflict as the primary force in history does feature prominently, as I remember. The leader's embodiment of the will of the people is of course a part of it, but I don't think these two elements are mutually exclusive, rather they support one another.

@Robinson
Thank you for the suggestions. I have read Kropotkin at one point, but was frustrated with his rather cavalier historical arguments. Also, I would really like to learn more about Makhno and the Spanish pre civil war anarchists, but are they more historical curiosities than essential reading I do not know. I'll have to begin somewhere I suppose. Have you any experience of academic approaches to the subject, that trace the development and basic elements of anarchist thought and with maybe some approaches to contemporary thinking? Graeber sounds like a good place to get into this. I guess it is pretty much builtinto the genetics of anarchism that it would contain a multitude of ideas. And on the other hand, all political ideologies are more like bunches of multiple ideas by different people grouped together by some basic categories to differentiate it from others schools of thought.
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at 22:36 on 22-08-2016, Robinson L
Again, in fairness to Tolkien, The Silmarillion was published after his death, with his son Christopher handling the editorial work of what to include/exclude. I've heard commentary by Tolkien scholars which suggests Christopher Tolkien put in one of his father's ideas for the Orcs' origin that the man himself wasn't happy with, because he hadn't come up with anything better. We'll never know if Tolkien would have signed off on that, or substituted a different origin story, or just left the matter unexplained had he been in charge of publishing it.

Well, "anarchism" is a pretty broad topic, with numerous possible approaches; what about it in particular were you wanting to learn more about? I generally find Graeber's writings to be good and thought-provoking reads, though some of them are more overtly anarchist in outlook than others. (Also, as I recall, his "Are you an anarchist? The answer might surprise you" is equally parts thought-provoking and infuriatingly smug.) James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism is a short, enjoyable read, but interestingly has little to say about political anarchy directly, and is more about applying anarchic sensibilities to a surprising range of other topics. The Crimethinc Ex-Workers' collective did a decent pair of episodes contrasting anarchism with both anarcho-capitalism and Stalinist Marxist a couple of years ago.
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at 22:16 on 22-08-2016, Bill
Robinson,

I don't think Tolkien is saying that divinely ordained authority figures can't be questioned. Certainly in his invented history there are lots of bad kings who make bad decisions and can be condemned for doing so. His kingdoms look a lot more like medieval kingdoms where the king can be checked by the nobility than seventeenth-century absolutisms. And the Shire, which I think is as close as it gets to his ideal, is certainly not an autocracy.

Janne,

I don't think Fascism or Naziism rested their claims to legitimacy solely on superior force--that's something I would more associate with imperialism--but on the idea of the Leader as the embodiment of the will of the people, or the race in the Nazi case.

Arthur,

I think Moorcock's problem is that he fails to see Tolkien as anti-capitalist at all, which brings us back to the point that he's just not a very good reader of Tolkien.
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at 20:46 on 22-08-2016, Janne Kirjasniemi
On Tolkien's Orcs:
If I recall correctly, The Silmarillion mentioned that orcs are elves corrupted by Morgoth. So in addition to the barbarians at the gates metaphor, the vil race is made up of creatures irrevocably corrupted by evil, which could be read as heretics or infidels or people of a wrong political ideology, who are beyond reason and can be destroyed without mercy. I wonder if Tolkien's insistence that his work is not an allegory for anything was precisely because he could see that all sorts of meanings can be interpreted from it and which are very hard to deny. His reactionary politics always seemed to have an air of romanticism and escapism in it, a sentiment not uncommon in academics who are mostly interested in medieval history. Although this is strictly my own experience of that. And it doesn't make him any more relevant politically. His preference for philosophical anarchism would fit, though.

Conan's claim to power expressed like that is pretty much the justification the fascists and the Nazis gave for their Will to Power, isn't it?

@Robinson
I admit that I have not that much konowledge of anarcho-capitalism or whether it is a valid form of anarchist thought. It does seem on the face of it that if it follows capitalistic thinking in its conception of property, it would be a bit of an open question of whose freedom to do what it is actually concerned with. And hilarious squabbles aside, all political ideologies are nonsensical, in a way. I would be interested to get a bit more on top of anarchism though and it's been a while since I've read up on it. Seeing as that piece on superheroics and how it can't but help to be conservative was very interesting, do you have any recommendations on good reads on the subject? Or any one else, for that matter.
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at 20:28 on 22-08-2016, Arthur B
Tolkien can be an ally for radicals (as he was perceived to be by much of the 60s counterculture) because of his anti-capitalism, but his anti-capitalism is so different from any kind of left anti-capitalism that the alliance is pretty tenuous anyway.

And I suppose it is worth pointing out that there is an extensive history of fascists and neofascists of an anti-capitalist stripe (eg the Strasser brothers, Ernst Rohm, and Strasserite factions in later movements like the UK's National Front) effectively trying to push fascism as a "Third Position" opposed both to capitalism and Marxism. This generally involves amping up the socialism in National Socialism, but can also involve Julius Evola-type evocation of a charming precapitalist idyllic past.

So I guess Moorcock's "LOTR = Mein Kampf" angle might be going for that, but trips because he fails to adequately shine a light on how hyper-reactionary anti-capitalism differs from left anti-capitalism and how LOTR fits into the former category.

Factionalism in politics is a plague and a pest, but it is entirely possible for people to go too far the other way and assume that if someone happens to be anti-capitalist they must be an ally without looking too hard at the alternatives they advocate. It's like how left-anarchists and Objectivists can't find common ground because despite both resenting the role of government, what they actually want to do in the absence of government would in many respects be mutually destructive to each others' utopias.
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at 20:15 on 22-08-2016, Robinson L
@Bill: Okay, I take your point in regards to Tolkien's politics, but I'm not sure I entirely agree. I didn't read Arthur's comment before posting my own, but he raises the excellent example of the Orcs playing into a Western siege mentality "barbarians at the gates" narrative. Similarly, I still feel his depiction of social hierarchies and authority figures who are beyond question as divinely ordained are congruent with contemporary elitist narratives.

I do think that there is a similarity between Eternal Champion and Anointed King in that both essentially derive their legitimacy from supernatural cosmic forces, whether God or the Cosmic Balance, as opposed to Conan, who derives his legitimacy from the fact that he will kill you if you question it.

Erm, put that way, I don't see much to recommend one of those over and above the others. A plague on all your houses, I say.
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at 18:46 on 22-08-2016, Bill
Robinson,

I do believe that Tolkien was deeply reactionary, so reactionary that his politics is essentially irrelevant. If you believe that English history took a tragic wrong turn in 1688, as I think Tolkien did (Oxford was always the Jacobite university) then you really have nothing to contribute to current debates. Tolkien can be an ally for radicals (as he was perceived to be by much of the 60s counterculture) because of his anti-capitalism, but his anti-capitalism is so different from any kind of left anti-capitalism that the alliance is pretty tenuous anyway.

Arthur:

You're probably right about my misreading of Moorcock. I'm mostly going on memories of books I read 30 years ago anyway. I do think that there is a similarity between Eternal Champion and Anointed King in that both essentially derive their legitimacy from supernatural cosmic forces, whether God or the Cosmic Balance, as opposed to Conan, who derives his legitimacy from the fact that he will kill you if you question it. But yes, I should probably go read some more books before I bloviate any more on Moorcock.
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at 15:31 on 22-08-2016, Robinson L
@Adrienne: I do thank you for sharing the article. I enjoyed rereading it (did I mention already I find the style entertainingly madcap? Because I do), and gleefully dissecting it afterward. I certainly didn't expect you to agree with all of Moorcock's arguments, nor necessarily to defend them. He says some interesting things, and he raises some good points (whether or not he lived up to his own standards is a separate question). So thanks again for kicking off the conversation, and I'm sorry if you haven't enjoyed it as much as I have.


@Bill: I know Tolkien was anti-Nazi, and I can believe he was anti-fascist, too. Neither of those preclude him being politically reactionary (a much broader category); or even if he himself wasn't politically reactionary, unconsciously writing stories which were. Nothing I've read in his works or learned about the man himself - not that I've conducted an in-depth study or anything - leads me to consider either of those possibilities unlikely, though I'm open to being persuaded.

Do you think Tolkien's writings are - on balance - non-reactionary, perhaps even radical? If so, I'd be very curious to hear your arguments.

The fact that entire races of beings in Tolkien's works are irredeemably evil is pretty disturbing - and to be fair, Tolkien himself apparently wasn't happy with it, either, but could never figure out a way to have his cake and eat it too on that one. What bothers me more about Tolkien specifically is that social stratification (especially by class) in his books is treated as a good and virtuous and noble thing; and that there are some exalted people who just intrinsically know better than the rest of us, whose wisdom and directives are simply beyond question or reproach - let alone disagreement or rejection - by us peons. I guess I'm mostly working off of David Brin's* arguments on this point.

*Definitely not a radical, and someone I disagree with on a ton of issues, but his elitist reading of Tolkien's Legendarium and critique thereof makes a lot of sense to me.

Moorcock's whole Law-Chaos dichotomy, particularly in the earlier work where Chaos is pretty unambiguously the baddies, also goes rather oddly with anti-authoritarianism.

Actually (*attempts to don Pedant Hat, realizes for thousandth time is already wearing it, substitutes Even Bigger Pedant Hat*) in one of the very early Elric stories - like, I think the second one - he meets a representative of Chaos who seems to be perfectly reasonable and who flat out states that the point of their eternal struggle with Law is not to win, but basically to maintain the Cosmic Balance. As I recall, Chaos didn't become aligned with Evil until the Stormbringer quartet, or as I like to think of them, the second half of the original Elric stories. But yeah, at that point, it was pretty much Law=Good, Chaos=Evil, as I recall. (*swaps Even Bigger Pedant Hat back for regular Pedant Hat*)

To go overly Freudian about it, it's as if fantasy writing by British men in the last 50-60 years has been basically an Oedipal struggle with Papa Tolkien.

Kinda makes sense. He dominates the field of fantasy (at least High or Epic Fantasy, or whatever you want to call it) to such an extent that it's impossible to avoid engaging with his works if you want to venture into that field. I imagine this leads authors to form Very Strong Opinions about Tolkien's works.


@Janne: Ah, I see. Actually, as I recall, the book also equated anarchism with leftism and excluded straight up anarcho-capitalists and market libertarians. I think this is also defensible, since my understanding is that capitalist/market types calling themselves anarchist is a much more recent phenomenon (my sources are numerous, but admittedly, just a wee bit biased), and their political and philosophical differences with traditional left anarchists aren't minor doctrinal disputes but rather gaping canyons of disagreement. (I can only imagine these squabbles are sources of great hilarity for those who think anarchy of any stripe is utter nonsense.)

As I remember, the stated reason Heinlein made the list of notable non-anarchists was on the strength of having supported a leftist candidate for California governor at one point, and, apparently, a lot of anarchists really like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The editor of the book apparently picked up an anti-authoritarian undercurrent in much of Herbert's work, and brought up a passage from one of the Dune sequels which talks about how formal structures of power inevitably calcify and turn destructive, or something to that effect. Tolkien is there entirely because of a letter he wrote to his son once where he said one of the ideal forms of government he found most appealing was "philosophical anarchy." Personally, I would have thought the fact - not mentioned in the book - that the other ideal form of government he favored, and which is much more prominently evident in his books, was "non-constitutional monarchy" would disqualify him, but wide net, I guess.
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at 15:30 on 22-08-2016, Arthur B
So I was off on a long weekend break whilst this happened but lemme break down my responses:

@Bill: The closest Moorcock series I can think of which fits your model of "persons of noble, or better yet royal, blood have SPECIAL DESTINIES that exalt them over the rest of us peasant shlubs" are the Elric series, and pastiches thereof like the Hawkmoon and Corum crap that Moorcock cranked out for easy money.

You will not find me defending the matter two here. But they did at least contain a vestige of what the Elric series was genuinely excellent at, at its best, which is playing specifically with themes about fading privilege and people's efforts to move away from the destiny and the supposed differences set up between themselves and other people by their birth and social status and how that's actually tremendously hard.

In particular, Elric's regal heritage is a decidedly mixed blessing; it leaves him as the scion of a nation which cultivated massive cruelty to a fine art and used to be a massive world-spanning colonial empire before its geopolitical fortunes declined, but still kids itself that it's super-important. Parallels to the experiences of British people born in the post-Colonial era becoming increasingly aware that their comfortable circumstances are built on generations of blood are quite aptly done. Putting them at the centre of the story does tend to make them look a bit more important, but is arguably necessary to make the points Moorcock wants to make.

Furthermore, I would say that the Elric series in particular actually subverts the idea that Elric is somehow more important than others from the way by the end of the series people are literally jumping on his sword so as to give him power, but all their struggles seem to have done by the end of Stormbringer is
empower Stormbringer itself to do mischief
, which I would argue is an illustration of how it doesn't matter how noble the background or intentions of someone wielding power is, power does what power does.

In terms of the Eternal Champion as being an Anointed King in the Tolkien sense: no, the parallel does not work at all. Tolkien was writing as a very reactionary traditionalist Catholic sort who saw legitimacy as flowing from God and passing down from there, and constructed Middle Earth in much the same way; Iluvatar is the supreme source of the good, and rulers, wizard, valar, maiar and people who are aligned with how Iluvatar intends them to be are legitimate, those who make discordance within Iluvatar's planned symphony of creation are illegitimate.

The Eternal Champion, conversely, is just shunted into situations by the powers that be in order to redress one balance or another, taking situations in which an unacceptable flavour of Law or Chaos is about to prevail and knocking them the other way. Balance is the ideal but is near-impossible to judge; excesses from either side are to be disdained.

It is also worth noting that Moorcock's Eternal Champion-related stuff - particularly once you start broadening the focus out to include stuff like the Jerry Cornelius material - does not necessarily concern itself with a realistic secondary creation. It seems to me that Moorcock is less concerned with making a consistent inventive world and is more interested in exploring the nature of the myths and legends we tell ourselves, and how those stories affect our thinking about the world. There are points where it feels like everyone in the story is just a rehash of the Eternal Champion or his hateful nemesis or his lover or his sidekick and that is probably intentional. (There are also indications that the Eternal Champion is less of a single actual individual who has all of these lives in sequence, Erekose's experience being atypical, and that it's more of a Jungian-style archetype that anyone could end up expressing in the right circumstances.)

I have discussed elsewhere in my reviews why I think heroic fantasy contexts are better placed for the Champion siding with Law against Chaos - namely, that the societies in such settings tend to be in more danger from fragmentation, brigandage, and arbitrary bullying than systematic, bureaucratic social ossification, so it makes more sense for the Champion to push Chaos in more modern-day settings. But the Champion very specifically pushes for a balance between Law and Chaos, not one over the other. This is not necessarily about anti-authoritarianism vs. authoritarianism, though that is one way it can manifest. (You could make an argument for the Nazis being an example of "authoritarian Chaos", in the sense that they actually did not give a single shit about the rule of law and worked within its bounds only to the extent that it worked for them and were happy to tear it up as and when it was convenient for them to do so.)

Then again, Moorcock does oversimplify things a fair bit in his essay, regularly in ways that undermine his point. His take on Tolkien being about running down working-class agitators, in particular, is nonsensical; neither Sauron nor Saruman fit that bill. They do seem to be all about making nasty industrialised hellholes in Isengard, or in Mordor, or in the Shire, but I think there Tolkien is indulging in the sort of ultra-reactionary stance that lots of people go for when they bemoan this newfangled modern technological society in that he imagines a sort of bucolic pastoral existence ruled over by an aristocracy which wasn't quite all it was cracked up to be. Essentially, Sauron and Saruman aren't working class agitators, they are far more like the bourgeoisie - resented by the aristocrats for pushing them out, resented in turn by Marxists and others on the left for enriching themselves massively on the backs of the labours of others.

But I don't think a lot of the stuff you've been saying about Moorcock's stuff is a matter of you reading Moorcock as ungenerously as he reads Tolkien so much as it's you reading Moorcock as inaccurately as he reads Tolkien. There is much to criticise in both Tolkien and Moorcock, and some of Moorcock's barbs hit home with Tolkien. In particular, though Orcs genuinely do not seem to stand in for any specific ethnicity the use of them to offer a "barbarian Others at the gates must be resisted with as much violence as humanly possible" narrative is unhelpful. The siege mentality of Western culture, where letting different-looking people in is tantamount to the fall of Rome over again, is a complex we can do without reinforcing.
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at 15:07 on 21-08-2016, Bill
Is Arthur B OK? Ordinarily, I'd expect him to join the discussion by this point, although if he's just sick to death of talking about Michael Moorcock that's perfectly understandable.
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