Saturday, March 1, 2014

Deep Into Tolstoy

Count Lev Nicolayevich Tolstoy in Peasant Garb, by Ilya Repin, c. 1901

I've been quite deep into Tolstoy lately -- carry me back in time and memory! -- and so have not really been keeping up with either posting here or the Events of the World Today. It's too much. One can do one's Tolstoy or one can do the other, and I've chosen, for what it's worth, to stick with my Tolstoy for the time being, in part because it seems to me he was seriously on to something back when time was, and that even now, much of his thinking -- as traditionalist and backward looking as it sometimes seems to be -- was remarkably advanced when he wrote, and much of it still is.

Times have changed, but they haven't changed that much.

The work I've been reading and writing a long commentary on (much in the manner of Tolstoy himself, come to think of it) is "What Then Must We Do?" (173pg pdf, be warned) a polemical essay on the vexing Problem of the Poor which was very much on his mind when he was at his Moscow townhouse but rather less so when he was at his country estates near Tula, a couple of hundred kilometers south of Moscow.

Of course being Tolstoy he goes much further than merely fretting over the condition of Moscow's multitudes of poor people. Much of the polemic is about himself, and what he must do to change himself if he truly wants to aid the poor. His anecdotes about what he finds as he attempts to be a philanthropist and fails are instructive, for very much the same problems and failures afflict much of the philanthropic community in our own time. Today, we've figured out how to make nice little careers out of being philanthropic. Progress!

His rants against the parasitical classes into which he dumps everyone who does not work themselves but who force the Lower Orders to support them instead -- including scientists and artists -- became tedious and annoying. By work Tolstoy means the work the peasants do on his estates and in the villages nearby. Plowing, planting, tool-making, weaving, harvesting, animal husbandry, preserving, storing. That sort of thing. No other work at all seems worthwhile to him -- except now and then at the margins. His existence as a Russian nobleman is worthless on its face, and his "work" as a world-renown author of novels and essays has not much more value as long as Petya and Ludmilla and all the rest of his peasants and the poor in general are forced to carry the burden of his upkeep and the upkeep of so many other drones and parasites on their backs.

If he were writing on behalf of his peasants and the poor, that might be another question, but so long as he writes for his own pleasure and that of his class he is a drone and a parasite and a burden. Though he doesn't mention it, I can imagine his angst is over his masterwork novels such as War and Peace, and perhaps especially Anna Karenina, novels which one can argue have no value at all to the peasantry but which can easily capture the imaginations of his peers and those who seek to emulate them -- as they still do.

The only work Tolstoy seems to value implicitly is that at the base -- agricultural labor and that which supports agriculture. Nothing else at all that men and women do to make a living is of intrinsic worth in his mind.

This perspective is interesting and a little difficult to deal with in contemporary terms, given the fact that the agricultural sectors in most of the developed and developing world are largely mechanized and depopulated. Whereas in Tolstoy's time, 90% of labor was in the fields, now the percentage of agricultural labor is in the single digits, edging ever closer to zero. What then?

Almost everyone lives in towns and cities now, and those who work in them are all by Tolstoy's definition, parasites and drones. Agriculture is conducted by laboratories, patent attorneys, bank spreadsheets, machines and computers, and to the extent that there are people in the fields in this country any more, they are mostly migrants, many from Mexico and Central America, who work hard but generally in brief spurts to weed, cultivate and/or harvest and then move on.

There are few or no settled peasants any more -- not in the developed and/or developing world at any rate.

And yet the poor are still with us in their multitudes...

Tolstoy celebrates a peasantry that no longer exists and human labor that is no longer necessary in modern agriculture. Machines do the heavy labor, machines built on assembly lines in distant factories, transported to the fields by other machines, all intricately webbed together. Banks determine the need for machinery and loan certain farmers money to buy the machines and thereby keep these particular individuals in perpetual debt -- which often enough is not so bad, because even though they must pay the banks their due, there is generally enough profit from the farm (if you want to call it a farm) to provide the farmer and his/her family with a very comfortable living. They may always carry a heavy debt to the banks, but they can also have a very pleasant and abundant lifestyle at the same time. Nothing at all like the situation of Tsarist Russia's peasants who were forced into debt.

A way was found to deal with the rural peasantry -- get rid of them! Clear the land of people. Consolidate small holdings into ever larger ones. Mechanize every conceivable aspect of agriculture. Hire day labor as needed. Voilá! No peasants, no peasant problem, no rural uprisings! Yay! Progress!

The last wave of rural clearance and dispossession took place in this country about 30 years ago when numerous small farmers were foreclosed upon when they were not able to refinance their debts as they had long been doing. It was of course a calculated and deliberate move on the part of the financiers who held the farmers' debts, the obvious point being land clearance and agricultural consolidation.

So today, there is no viable peasantry to celebrate, and such manual labor as there still is in agriculture is done by hired hands, most of them Spanish speaking "foreigners" on temporary contract.

The dispossessed are forced into towns where those who can get ahead -- as most at one time could, and some still can -- do so, and the rest are left to fend for themselves as best they might.

While some of the uber-wealthy consider everyone who is not of their own class to be a "parasite", neither town-dwellers nor the highest of the mighty today are being carried on the backs of the rural peasantry any more. No such peasantry exists.

We have to be careful, though, in thinking that way. It may be accurate in the case of rural North America and Europe and more and more accurate with regard to most of the developing world, but there are still many hundreds of millions of rural peasants in the whole wide world, and many of them are still working as hard as any Russian peasant ever did in Tolstoy's time to feed and clothe and house Their Betters, the parasitical classes who burden them.

Today we may never see or be aware of this still extant -- but distant -- peasantry. It may be far away, but it's there.

Yet much closer to home, the poor are still with us in their multitudes and their numbers keep growing.

Many millions of Americans are forced into poverty in this country every year, and the current poverty rate among Americans is higher than it has been in decades. There is no public policy effort to reduce it. In fact, public policies act to increase poverty.

One might ask to what object is this so? Of course, it's obvious what the object is: to force down and keep down wages and benefits for those who can obtain and keep jobs. The more unemployment and poverty there is, the lower the wage and benefit base for workers. Very simple. It is government and industry policy  that makes it so, and no amount of agitation by the impoverished masses has any affect on the situation.

Oh, but what about all the efforts -- some of them successful -- to "raise the minimum wage?" All well and good, but they don't raise anyone out of poverty even when they are successful. The efforts to raise the minimum wage from (say) seven-and-a-quarter to ten dollars and change, for example, barely touches the poverty equation faced by so many millions of Americans, and merely demonstrates how very low the wage and benefit base has been allowed to fall over the years. Whereas at a time I can still remember, one modest income was sufficient for a household to get by on decently if not necessarily abundantly, now two or three incomes per household are necessary for subsistence. And still, even with everyone in the household who can work being employed, the household may remain in poverty. At ten dollars an hour, a household may still be in poverty, but at fifteen an hour, it may be possible to break through the poverty line, so long, that is, as there is more than one income earner.

Why should this situation be allowed, let alone be considered normal and natural as it is?

These are the kinds of questions Tolstoy asked about his own country in his own day, and one of the answers he came up with was the gross inequality of power between a toiling, or in many cases idle, impoverished multitude and a parasitical overclass who ruled and exploited the multitude -- ruling with fear and brutality and starvation and death.

Their cruelty, he said, was justified by tradition and by "science"  -- particularly the bogus "science" of economics.

Oh, how I laughed! Because it is so true. Just as in Tolstoy's own time, the contemporary "science" of economics is used to justify any kind of exploitation on behalf of capitalists and their power and their greed. The lot of the workers and the poor may be difficult, but -- according to think tanks peopled with economists -- it's not nearly as bad as it could be, not even close, so the toiling and/or idle masses should just take it with a smile and a grateful tug on their forelock, for, yes, if they don't, it could get very much worse for them, very quickly. You see? Good. Now that we understand how the world works...

I'm reminded of Frau Merkel and her buddy Sr. Draghi and his buddy Mme Legarde, chortling in the background as the remnants of the Old Soviet Empire are sliced and diced for the benefit of the European bankers and the Global Overclass even as we speak. I've actually heard of some of the chattering classes opining on the necessity of imposing "Greek Style Austerity" on the Ukrainians to get them into shape to participate in the European Periphery as it were. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. These people know no bounds to their cruelty, do they? No, actually they don't. They are so certain of their right and their righteousness that any level of cruelty they care to impose is justified in their own minds.

As some wag proposed, Frau Merkel is the daughter Adolph and Eva would have had...

May we theorize that unrestrained power -- by any faction -- inevitably leads to cruelty? And such cruelty leads to impoverishment?

Tolstoy, late in his life, set himself on a path of redemption by -- he said -- relieving his peasants of the burden of supporting him and carrying him on their backs. That, he believed, was what everyone of his position and class must do. He -- and they -- must learn to live in a manner which does not require the Lower Orders to carry them. They must learn to do whatever they can for themselves. They must work.

Tolstoy did this by working side by side with his peasants, learning their ways and crafts, taking care of his own needs rather than relying on corps of servants, and using whatever surplus he earned to enhance the lives of those Below rather than to add to his already overabundant luxuries.

Our own Neo-Aristos are nowhere near that self-aware, though. To the extent that philanthropy -- as opposed to cruelty -- enters their minds at all, they have no interest in relieving the burdens of the poor and of those being forced into poverty, they want to select winners and losers among them, and to increase, not reduce, the burdens they are forced to carry. To that extent they are innately evil.

I've gone back to Tolstoy in part because so much of the Overclass's recent propaganda barrage has been focused on Russia, Putin, Ukraine and so on, and I've always had a warm regard for the Russian and Soviet efforts to tame some of the worst aspects of their own society. I realized early on that the anti-Soviet propaganda was lies and damned lies and worse. So is the anti-Russian, anti-Putin propaganda today. It's remarkably similar in tone and content as well. To learn, as we did yesterday, that one of the high profile American plutocrats is funding revolt and revolution in Ukraine, in concert with the Government of the United States of America (Inc) and a plethora of American-funded NGOs merely confirms what instinct about these things suggests must be true.

The question remains, "What Then Must We Do?" when faced with such cruelty and such crimes?

So often I ask, "What did the Russians and the Soviets do? How did they cope, and how did they overcome?"

So many lessons yet to be learned.

Lev Nicolayevich Tolstoy's funeral procession, 1910

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