I have been reading Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici. It’s about the shift from Feudalism to Capitalism and the impact that shift had on women. Replacing Feudalism with Capitalism is a process that took two to three hundred years. In reviewing the history and writing about it, historians identify and describe to us the broad trends unfolding. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to see such trends clearly in the history we live. This is the reason to study history. To get a perspective that gives us some ability to assess our times, identify trends and project those trends into the future.
As I read, I understand the trends, I see the echos with my time. For the people living through it, it’s what they were going through. They did not comprehend that something called Feudalism was dying and that something called Capitalism was rising out of its not yet cold ashes. I suppose we should always assume something is afoot at any given time, and that historians hundreds of years down the road will be able to say, oh yah, that’s what was happening. Something seems to be afoot right now that is bigger than usual.
The battle over women’s control of their reproductive cycle…
As I read Caliban and the Witch, the principle echo I am finding is the battle waged to wrestle reproductive cycle control from women and to subjugate them more completely to a Patriarchy. This was, according to Federici, a principal effect of the birth of capitalism. Capitalism is, at its heart, a system of exploitation. Exploitation of workers, exploitation of resources, exploitation of the commons. To exploit it atomizes and enslaves. Women were “othered” from men more drastically than in the past and were enslaved to reproduction and domestication. There is, at present, a new war on women unfolding in the United States, and it is again about their reproductive role.
The present war is not just on women. It is on any community that challenges the white patriarchal structure. It’s a war on race, it’s a war on gender, it’s a war on sexuality. It’s a war on the values of Enlightenment Humanism which are the foundation of democratic government. It’s a war on democracy itself. The question is, what big shift is this a symptom of? One away from capitalism, toward some hyper globalized version of capitalism, or towards something altogether different?
The breakdown of science…
In his Substack article, The Death of Science, L. P. Koch wrote:
Has science just gone off the rails, and all we need to do is find our way back to real science?
Or should we accept that science is inherently limited for deeper reasons, and move away entirely from putting science as we know it on a pedestal? In other words, change our priors, change our presuppositions?
I suppose it’s both.
Koch gets the assessment of the state of science from Lain McGilchrist’s book, The Matter With Things1.
A few of the things noted from McGilchrist’s book by Koch:
Due to specialization, every scientist takes almost every scientific “result” except the tiniest area of his expertise purely on authority, without having looked into it in any way. This includes results from his own field, and even his own subfield.
… according to a survey published in Nature, a whopping 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce someone else’s experiment. And yet, less than 20% said they had ever been contacted by another researcher who failed to reproduce their results.
In his famous paper, “Why most published research findings are false,” John Ioannidis observes that the hotter a scientific field (the more scientific teams are involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.
In the church of secular capitalist society, science is the god. And indeed, there is a lot of pure faith involved in the belief in science. So, if the god of modern capitalist society is in trouble, it suggests that something is afoot.
The breakdown of democracy…
If democracy isn’t breaking down, it is being strenuously challenged. Russia, China, Viktor Orban’s “Illiberal Democracy,” are all signs of this. As is Donald Trump and the far right in the United States. The fate of American Democracy and Democracy around the world is very much in question. Something is afoot.
The breakdown of Enlightenment Humanist Values…
It is clear that in the United States, the right is challenging Enlightenment Humanist principles of tolerance, inclusiveness, and scholarship. Just this morning I read:
Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.”2
American colleges and universities are the torch bearers of Enlightenment Humanist values.
In his Substack Post, The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Enlightenment, L. P. Koch writes about the “myth” of the Enlightenment. Which isn’t to say that there was no Enlightenment, but to point to the fact that it wasn’t a graceful blossoming of new ideas, but a tumultuous time of finding and sorting out new ideas and challenging orthodoxy. He sites R.G. Collingwood’s theory of the development of consciousness and summarizes it this way:
New ideas come to the scene, which combine with historical developments to blow up the conventional belief system that holds society together at a given time—a set of beliefs that now seems fossilized, inadequate, and full of contradictions.
A phase of turmoil follows, intellectual and otherwise, that generates a whole generation (or more) of renegade thinkers, new takes, new experiments. The old chains of a stifling orthodoxy are broken; conformists are suffering and confused.
Eventually, out of this heterodox melee emerges a new set of fundamental beliefs, coupled with unshakable and often unconscious metaphysical assumptions. Over time, this new orthodoxy is codified and enforced, dissenters shunned, and a founding myth is established and projected back into the past. This new belief system then becomes ever-more stifling, its contradictions apparent, until the cycle repeats.
He speculates that we are in the midst of a phase of new ideas overtaking orthodoxy and creating much churning, that something is afoot.
The breakdown of trust and the unmooring of ourselves from empirical facts
Kelly Ann Conway famously said:
Facts don’t matter, what people believe matters.
This is a breathtaking statement and possibly the most profound statement of where we are. As suggested by Koch, the society we have known, deeply embedded in Enlightenment orthodoxy is coming undone. Trust in our public institutions is at an alltime low. The Supreme Court, Congress, government across the board at every level except perhaps the most local where people are more directly in touch with their government, trust is breaking down.
Ted Gioia writes in his piece on trust The Scarcest Thing in the World:
Tell me what source you trust, and I’ll tell you why you’re a fool. As B.B. King once said: “Nobody loves me but my mother—and she could be jivin' too.”
Something is afoot.
The emergence of AI…
There is a lot of news about AI. The new large language models began to become available for broader public consumption at the beginning of the year. I have written some about this here, here, and here.
This week, news broke that the “godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, quit Google so that he could talk freely about the dangers of AI. One of his concerns is that we are rapidly approaching the point where AI will become smarter than humans, known in some circles as the Omega point, or Singularity. He sites a number of other things to worry about too.
I will have more to say about AI in the coming weeks as I revisit a talk I gave in 2009 about it. I will be updating that talk and publishing it in a series 3 to 4 posts long. Until then, keep an eye out…**something is afoot**.
I have purchased The Matter With Things and have started reading it. Very interesting book. ↩︎