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The Barbaric Heart

Capitalism and the crisis of nature

by Curtis White

Published in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Meryl Joseph

THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: “Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?” We ordinarily think of environmentalists as people who care about something called nature or (if they’re feeling a little technocratic, and they usually are) the “environment.” They are concerned, as well they should be, that the lifestyle and economic practices of the industrialized West are not sustainable, and that nature itself may experience a “system collapse.” But as scientifically sophisticated as environmentalism’s thinking about natural systems can be (especially its ability to measure change and make predictions about the future based on those measurements), its conclusions about human involvement in environmental degradation tend to be very reductive and causal. Environmentalism’s analyses tend to be about “sources.” Industrial sources. Nonpoint sources. Urban sources. Smokestack sources. Tailpipe sources. Even natural sources (like the soon-to-be-released methane from thawing Arctic tundra). But environmentalism is not very good at asking, “Okay, but why do we have all of these polluting sources?

Because we have not allowed ourselves to ask this question and instead limited ourselves to haplessly trying to turn off sources, our experience has been like Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: for every berserk broomstick that he hacked in half, two more took its place, implacably carrying buckets of water that, one by one, created a universal deluge. Similarly, for every polluting source that we turn off (or “mitigate,” since we can’t seem to really turn off anything), another two pop up in its place. For example, at the very moment that we seem to have become serious about reducing our use of petroleum, here comes coal from the ravaged mountaintops of West Virginia and tar sands from Canada, the dirtiest and most destructive energy sources of them all. These rounds of mitigation and evasion are what pass for problem-solving.

Environmentalism is also reluctant to think that its problem may not be of modern origin but something as old as humanity itself. It is committed to a sort of “presentism” in which the culprits are all of recent vintage: Monsanto, Big Oil, developers of suburban sprawl, the modern corporation, you know, the usual suspects. But bad as these things can be (and that’s very bad), they are not the unique creators of our problems. And they are not evil, or, as we descendants of the Puritans like to say, “greedy.” Simply blaming these entities for traditional moral failings is not adequate to the true situation. At most, by doing so we create an environmentalist melodrama of evildoers opposed by forces of good. (Big Oil versus the Sierra Club.)

After all, isn’t it true that what corporations and the individuals who run them try to do is something very human and very familiar? Even admirable? They try to be creative (or innovative, as they like to say). They try to grow. They revel in discovery. They delight in complexity. They have always been major benefactors to education and the arts. (For instance, the merchant capitalists of the Italian Renaissance were also the facilitators of humanism. Where the bankers went, the artists were not far behind.) They try to exercise critical analytic skills in evaluating the world in which they act. They try to help their friends. They try to make the people who are most important to them prosper. They have an astonishing capacity for creative adaptation, even if it is only in the name of preserving their own dominance. In short, they try to win. They try to thrive. We should all be so committed to the risk of “living large.” The problem is not with these qualities as admirable human qualities. The problem is with what exactly it is that they’re trying to help thrive.

My claim is that what is behind these activities is not the stereotypical capitalist mentality of cold logic, a lack of normal feelings, and an unbridled appetite for gain. Rather, I see the Barbaric Heart. First, it is important to say that in associating capitalism with the barbaric I am not merely name-calling. This is so because, as I’ve already suggested, there is something admirable about the astonishingly complex world that capitalism has made. No amount of human or electronic computation can encompass the complexity of the psychological and material world that market capitalism has brought into being. What economists call the “spontaneous order” of the free market stretches if not infinitely then at least unimaginably. At one end there is the miracle of digital technology (are we really supposed to believe that hundreds of hours of music can fit on a device the size of a cigarette pack?). This digital world gets tinier and more powerful every year, and it is substantially the product of capitalist ingenuity. I have to admire it even if, as a person who has spent his life among books, I mostly fear and dislike it. At the other end, there is the continental roaming of shoppers among millions of products that is as vast, in its own way, as the primordial movement of animal herds stretching from horizon to horizon on the Serengeti. Imagine a satellite image illuminating all the activity at shopping malls in the United States on a typical American Saturday afternoon. From a vantage in space, it would look like North America was flowing and glowing with strange life. If you could for a moment exclude the other consequences of this activity (environmental, social, military), you might be tempted to call this vision beautiful. (As in the ambiguous shots of Los Angeles freeways in the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The slow, winding flow of headlights comes to look like a natural phenomenon, like watching the northern lights.)

To say that there is something barbaric at work in these accomplishments is to say that there is also something admirable about the Barbaric Heart itself. The Barbaric Heart is not the opposite of the civilized. In fact, the Barbaric Heart is civilized, for all the good that does it, and has always happily clad itself in the decorous togas of Rome (as the Ostrogoth King Theodoric did), the pinstripes of Wall Street, and the comfy suburbanity of L. L. Bean. The Barbaric Heart has always wanted to look nice even when it didn’t (consider the leisure suit). The barbaric is admirable for its sheer strength, its daring, its energy, and its willingness to take risks. It is taller than we are. It is prouder in the way that a beautiful animal is proud. It is, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, a “blonde beast.” (He mostly thought that was a good thing, or at least better than being a slave.)

Unhappily, beyond its strength and pride and willingness to take on difficult tasks, there is something dangerous to itself and others in the Barbaric Heart. The Barbaric Heart is a great and energetic actor, but it is no better at questioning itself about the meaning of its actions than capitalism is at asking why the unlimited growth of the Gross Domestic Product is good. Capitalism does not ask, “What’s the economy for?” Capitalism merely asks it to grow. (It’s as if the only alternative to “growth” was “recession,” and no one is allowed to be for that.) Nonetheless, questions are in order. The Greek that opens the Gospel according to John reads, “In the beginning was Logos.” What is the logos (the spirit, the logic) of the Barbaric Heart? In short, in what name does it act?

THE NATURAL MODE of reasoning for the Barbaric Heart is simple enough to describe. It was the logic not only of the ancient northern hordes, clothed in animal skins, but of the Roman Empire and the Western civilization that followed as well. (That must be our first deconstructive insight: the barbarian is not an “other” to be driven away in the name of civilized virtue.) For the Romans, virtue simply meant success, usually military success. Valor. That was the heart of Romanitas. For the Roman forces under Scipio Aemilianus at the end of the Third Punic War against Carthage, the routine was well understood: half of the time would be devoted to violence, to killing every human and dog and cat that crossed their path, and half the time would be given to plunder, to the transfer of every valuable material thing back to Rome, especially gold and silver things. Roman violence was above all orderly. As a consequence, as Polybius wrote, Rome “billowed in booty.”

This is the barbaric calculation: if you can prosper from violence, then you should go ahead and be violent. In short order the Barbaric Heart is led to conclude that in fact prosperity is dependent on violence. Therefore, you should be good at violence, for your own sake and the sake of your country. That was Roman virtu. Which is a way of saying that the barbaric itself is a form of virtue, especially if you think that winning, surviving, triumphing, and accumulating great wealth are virtues, just as, in order, athletes, Darwinians, military commanders, and capitalists do. Ultimately, these types are all the same. The athlete, the soldier, and the businessman all want to “win,” and by whatever means necessary.

Even though the warlike Romans understood every victory as a divine confirmation of their character, virtue in fact has very little to do with what the gods think. Virtues are specific to cultures. Barbaric virtues have been challenged by competing ethical organizations like the Stoic virtues of honor, integrity, simplicity, loyalty, and moderation, or the Christian virtues of selflessness, compassion, reverence, humility, faith, and hope. There have been other articulations of virtue as well. Humanism and the Enlightenment advocated the virtues of fraternity and equality before the law. Environmentalism has used all of these articulations at one time or another in its increasingly desperate effort to gain moral traction. What these forms of virtue have in common is that, unlike the Barbaric Heart, they are concerned with articulating a sense of the whole.

For the Barbaric Heart, on the other hand, there is nothing that is as real as the self-interested Ego, His Majesty the Sovereign Self.  What else could care so blindly about “winning”? But it also feels, at some dark recess of the heart, how pathetically empty this Self is. So the Barbaric Heart grasps at things to fill that emptiness. The histories of ancient warfare always claim that the surest inducement to the warrior to fight was the prospect of being able to cart off the enemy’s silver and gold (and women). Plates, jewelry, the objects in temple shrines, precious ornamentation applied to buildings, anything that glittered. With such a prospect at hand, death meant nothing. Through the “right of conquest” (the unwritten law of the ancient world that trumped all written laws) the warrior might at last feel full and real. He might also participate in glory. Why, he could even become virtuous in this way (or, as we still say, a “hero”).

Ironically, through this logic the Barbaric Heart also committed not only itself but all of the human and natural world to what the Greeks called tragedy. Tragic fate, for the Greeks, was the understanding that once you put a certain principle in motion, that principle would play itself out. Completely out. And so, as in Aeschylus’s tragedies, humans pursue what they perceive to be their own interest only to become “the slave of their own destruction,” an apt expression of our current situation on multiple fronts, economic, military, and environmental.

What is tragic is that the bloody end, “the great wound swimming upwards” like a shark (Aeschylus again), is unintended but no less inevitable for that. We don’t intend that the pursuit of personal wealth should lead to the bankruptcy of an entire nation, but bankrupt we are. We don’t intend that our strategic military actions should lead to an endless and uncontrollable spiraling of violence, but it does. We don’t intend that the pursuit of our happiness should lead to the extinction of animals, desertification, drought, famine, mass human migration, violent storms, but all that is presently “swimming upwards” regardless of what we intend.

THERE ARE TWO THINGS that the Barbaric Heart, for all its brutal blond beauty, doesn’t get. First, it doesn’t look at itself. It is frustrated by questions like “What makes life worth living?” Or it assumes that the answer is obvious: “Winning! Of course.” It doesn’t even wonder what its relation to other barbarians might be. It doesn’t know about solidarity beyond a blind submission to the tribe (the ancient form of that perverse form of loyalty we call patriotism). But it has very little understanding of why self-interest should be sacrificed to a universal good, whatever that is. 

Second, the Barbaric Heart doesn’t understand, except at the very last moment of anguished recognition, how suicidal its activities are. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is full of descriptions of the awful moment of animal awareness when the barbarian realizes that he has gone, once again, too far and brought about his own destruction. For example, after the disastrous battle of Hadrianople in 378 AD at which two thirds of the Emperor Valens’s Roman army was wiped out in its own moment of barbaric folly, the Gothic armies were, as usual, unrestrained, abandoned to passions, and generally given over to what Gibbon called “blind and irregular fury.” Their “mischievous disposition” consumed with “improvident rage” the crops and the possessions of the local inhabitants. Eventually, an army of the Goths was surprised by the remaining Romans while “immersed in wine and sleep,” and there followed in turn a “cruel slaughter of the astonished Goths.” Thus, the anguish of the Barbaric Heart.

Is it too much to say that, a little more than a millennium and a half later, you could see the same surprise and anguish on the faces of the managers of international investment securities as the housing bubble burst and lenders, insurers, bond markets, and hedge funds all came close to evaporating as billions upon billions of dollars disappeared virtually overnight? All around them are the homeowners in foreclosure, just like the peasant villagers in 378 looking at the smoking ruins of their little homes.

THE BARBARIC HEART is a pure emptiness, an emptiness that doesn’t know itself as empty. It is an emptiness that has turned upon itself. It is a mouth that chews. It is a permanent state of war against all others but also, most profoundly, against itself. One part violence, one part plunder, and eventual anguish and regret.

The Barbaric Heart cannot be punished for its excesses. It cannot be “shown the light of day.” The proposals of the environmental community for better systems of transportation, cleaner smokestacks, purer foods, and jail time for corporate polluters—none of that changes the Barbaric Heart. If it is frustrated by the activities of others (those troublesome tree-huggers), it simply concludes that it will be more cunning and violent next time. As Nicholson Baker reports in his controversial book Human Smoke, in May of 1941 Lord Boom Trenchard considered the ineffectiveness of a year of daily bombing of the cities of Germany. What next? “Trenchard’s answer was: more. More bombing. Relentless nightly bombing—heavier bombers, more bombers.”

If the Barbaric Heart cannot be shown the errors of its ways, or even simply learn from its own tragic mistakes, then it must be displaced. That is, we should not seek to alter what the Barbaric Heart desires, for what it desires is what we desire: to be secure from outside threat, to protect its people (whether a tribe or a ruling class of elites), to thrive, to take pleasure in its world, etc. What we can do is make it seek by a new route what it constantly, unalterably seeks. What displaces the Barbaric Heart in this way is what I will call, for lack of a better term, thoughtfulness. (This is an inexact term, I know, but it has always been to the idea of “thinking” that philosophy has turned to confront the self-interest and violence of the barbaric. Thoughtfulness offers the Barbaric a better way to think about what it means to thrive.) In our current circumstances, thoughtfulness’s first task is the acknowledgment that we have been lying to ourselves. Just about every aspect of what we happily call American culture is a form of lie that we retell ourselves every day. The great virtue of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, for example, was its determination not to believe the lies of violence and avarice any longer. Its prophetic howl erupted from a culture of mere consent. The poem introduced an internal realignment of American culture accomplished through what we now refer to as the counterculture of the 1960s. The Barbaric Heart for a time stood naked and exposed in its deceitfulness and violence. It was a “bright shining lie,” in Neil Sheehan’s phrase. For a moment, the usual logical appeals of economists and politicians for the necessity of violence and the supremacy of efficiency and profit were found to be not only insufficient but morally repugnant.

In the end, the one important task of thoughtfulness is to invent a spiritual principle, a logos of its own, that can contest the energies (and tyrannies) of the Barbaric Heart. But thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is not its ability to provide a superior Truth or an irrefutable logic. Thoughtfulness’s primary attribute is aesthetic. That is, what thoughtfulness proposes as an alternative to the self-serving violence of the Barbaric is beauty. “Don’t think profit,” it argues, “think beauty. The beauty of the polis, the beauty of culture, the beauty of human beings freed from the slavery of regimented work, and the beauty of an untrammeled natural world.” Through the aesthetic, thoughtfulness seeks Homo humanus as opposed to Homo barbarus. It seeks a culture in which humans can become what they really are. Not slaves, and not instruments of violence, but beings intent upon the beautiful as a social principle. That’s the logos of our better selves. And yet we seem reluctant to claim it.

The idea that we are trying to create a culture whose primary satisfaction is its beauty is not really such an extravagant thought. When we say that we desire a world in which nature is intact and animal life thrives; when we say that we desire human communities in harmony with nature; and when we say that within those communities human beings should be able to live in dignity, so that they can be something more than worker-consumers, we are arguing for a reality that is first aesthetic. Environmentalists argue for such a reality all the time. It is what they propose in the place of a barbaric culture of profit and violence. Even so, we are often seduced by the economic and scientific appeals to efficiency, sustainability, and prosperity, in spite of the fact that we suspect that these appeals are actually part of the problem. But in our heart of hearts we are not fooled. What we want is the beautiful. We say it with a smile on our faces when we go for a hike, or when we visit an “eco-friendly” town full of bike paths and locally owned shops with a mountain vista in the background. We do not say of such places, “I’m grooving on this system’s ecological balance.” Or, “The Green Economy is working well.” We say, “It’s beautiful here!” And yet when we set out to make our most public arguments for nature, we seem almost embarrassed to say that what convinces us is the argument of the beautiful. The thoughtfulness of the beautiful. In fact, I’m embarrassed right now!

What is it that makes such an argument so difficult to make? If what we want is the beautiful, why do we feel that our most persuasive arguments will be made by scientists, environmental engineers, regional planners, and sustainability economists? In part, it is the fact that we have been intimidated by all those who would say that such thinking is “unrealistic,” by which they really mean “does not concede the brutal fact of the enduring triumph of the Barbaric Heart.” By this measure, to be realistic is to say, “We plan to win by conceding the game to our adversaries before the contest has even begun.”

Second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art. This is so obvious that it hardly needs comment. One has simply to say “television.” Nevertheless, it is art, or the aesthetic, that prohibits the temptation to mourn the death of the world we were born into. Art is not a call to passive contemplation (a trip to the museum) but to the activity of human creation. It is this that should replace Adam Smith’s famous “division of labor,” the work that promises only tedium and despair and passivity in the face of destruction. Environmentalism should be about a return to the aesthetic, and I don’t mean the beauties of a mountain vista. I mean a resistance to the Barbaric Heart through a daily insistence on the Beautiful within individual lives, within communities, and in our relation to the natural world.

IN VIRGIL’S AENEID, when Aeneas and the faithful Trojan remnant sail from Troy for the shores of Italy, they, in a sense, never leave Troy. They are never not Trojans because they take with them their “household gods,” those figures and myths that provide them with identity. And when they land in Latium and begin to set up a new home, they do not feel themselves on strange shores. They are always at home. They bring the fullness of the past to meet the fullness of the present in productive beauty. By contrast, we’re not even at home at home. We’re strangers on our own shores, thanks to the way in which corporations and their franchises have colonized our cities and towns, turning them into one big McSame.

Historians often wonder what it was like for the Romans to live under the rule of the Goths in the sixth century. Barbarians in the Senate, barbarians in the market, barbarians in the temple, barbarians in the countryside. The constant presence of the violently alien. Well, perhaps it was like living with Best Buy and Costco and Barnes and Noble, in our Big Box world. In both the ancient world and the present, it is like living, in Nietzsche’s mordant phrase, “estranged from house and home in the service of malignant dwarfs.” But somehow when we look on the ugliness that this reality brings, we see a “high standard of living.” Those enchanted by the malignant dwarfs (CEOs? MBAs?) do not think to ask, “What makes life worth living?” The answer is obvious: “The high standards, of course!” A very strange conclusion for a people who are the living witnesses of so much permanent destruction.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that there is no need for environmentalism. Environmentalism has no victories to win. The very notion of environmentalism is not much more than a way of isolating a problem from its true context. The crisis of a degraded natural world is a part of the larger problem of the crisis of thought, the crisis of faith, and the crisis of the relation of human beings to Being (or God, if you prefer). What is called for is the discovery or invention of our own “household gods” that might speak powerfully to us. “Gods” that will keep us in touch with a sense of the depth of our own past and call us creatively to what we might call our primordial aesthetic passion: our deep desire to be the creators of our own world.

We ought to discover that there is something superior to the Barbaric Heart, a Universal that is not only Nature but human capacity and creativity as well. We ought to discover that we are a part of this One, an animal among animals. Ours should be a Dionysian world that refuses the cold comfort of both the capitalist manager and the ecologist technician. The Dionysian does not so much refuse these worlds as laugh in dismissal. Its world is indulgent and ecstatic and curiously impersonal. It is not an animal lover; it is simply happy among animals. It is not a nature lover; it is nature. It doesn’t pity the plight of the polar bear; it romps in the snow. It is a thoughtful and beautiful animal, but it is an animal. The Dionysian fucks, eats, looks for the ecstasy of transcendence, and worships the same gods that the animals worship. Not the God that gives laws, but the gods that encourage living things to thrive.

We are that strange and wonderful animal that has the metaphysical comfort of knowing that she is part of the tragic chorus of natural beings. We are members of that faith that knows that life is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable. And the mark that we will leave upon the world will not be the mark of brute force clothed in the false virtues of the barbarian but the mark of the ultimate realist, he who makes his own world, demanding the impossible and calling it Beautiful.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.

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Curtis White is a novelist and social critic living in Normal, Illinois. His essay in this issue is adapted from The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature, published in September 2009 by PoliPointPress.

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